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When being nice is confused with “sucking up”

Dear Office-Politics,

I saw an email my boss sent to the office manager… It was an email that I had sent my boss. I was being sincere and thanking her for seeing the good in people, and she wrote back to the office manager- “I just threw up in the trash can”.

I think she thought I was sucking up to her? Not sure, I felt pretty bad? Should I be concerned?

Just being nice


dr. rick brandon
dr. marty seldman

Dear Just being nice,

When something like this happens it is disappointing on two levels. One is that just on the human level you were being sincere and someone felt you were phony or political. Two this is not just someone, it is your boss.

We wouldn’t be alarmist about the fact that your boss made that comment to someone else. However it is definitely important data on your boss and it means being more vigilant about what you say or write going forward.

The area of positive feedback is a complex one. Many people assume that it is universally helpful to relationships and always well received. Your situation is one of many examples that show this is not the case.

There are two risks when you give positive feedback. We will explain them and hopefully you will see that before you give people positive feedback it is useful to study how they react to it when they receive it from others.

The first situation is that while most people like receiving sincere positive feedback there are some people who don’t react well. Either they get uncomfortable and want to change the subject or discount what is being said or they question your motives. These are people who worry about “being stroked” or that you are “selling them”. The second situation is related but there is an added dimension when it is someone above you in the organization. The individual may think you are ingratiating yourself or if it is done in public your peers may view it that way.

Having said this we want to reinforce that most people including bosses appreciate the feedback. So in summary we recommend using mild, specific positive feedback and also studying someone’s reaction. Notice their body language (which you can’t do in an email exchange).

In your case you now have feedback about your boss and we would suggest still showing appreciation and being positive when warranted but keep it mild and do it less. This is about your only option because it would be difficult to discuss for both of you.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success

cover of Survival of the SavvyRick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.

  1. 2 Answers to “When being nice is confused with “sucking up””

  2. Thank you very much! I am looking for another position elsewhere, possibly a larger company where I won’t have to see or hear much of this!

    By Letter writer on Jul 12, 2007

  3. why is office politics often feared? is there a positive dimension to office politics?

    By kacy on May 24, 2009

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