NEW YORK – The return to the office is also bringing the return of familiar workplace dynamics, including “work besties” and frenemies. But new research shows that one of these familiar office archetypes – the “yes man” or “yes woman” – might actually be a positive element. Columbia Business School Assistant Professor of Business Wei Cai finds that these “upward influencers,” as Professor Cai and her fellow researchers rebrand them, can boost a team’s performance. In fact, they find that team performance is highest when upward influencers make up 52% of a team – which demonstrates that these employees can be both an asset and a liability.
“Upward influencers” are employees who are characterized by their tendencies to flatter the boss or intentionally misrepresent their contributions to impress superiors. The study is the first to investigate how “office suck-ups” can bolster or impede their team’s success, which the researchers accomplish through analyzing 360-degree evaluation surveys and proprietary data from an HR and talent management consulting company that randomly assigns employees to project teams. In total, the researchers analyzed 578 unique employees and 473 unique project teams in their final sample. Professor Cai and her colleagues, University of Toronto Rotman School of Management Professor Jee-Eun Shin and Harvard Business School doctoral candidate Yaxuan Chen identified upward influencers as employees who were rated more highly by former and current supervisors relative to the average evaluation scores received from former and current peers and subordinates in the 360-degree person evaluation survey. They measured team performance using clients’ assessments of the team’s overall success achieving predetermined goals.
When comparing the percentage of upward influencers on a team versus the team’s overall performance, they found an inverted U-shaped relationship – when upward influencers represent over 52% of their teams, overall team performance suffers. That’s because in those situations, researchers found, these employees prioritize competing with one another for influence or power over productive, collaborative work. But when upward influencers are in smaller numbers, they can improve team performance by maintaining stronger communication with supervisors, particularly when the team’s tasks are highly interdependent or when managers are relatively new or inexperienced.
This new research reveals the conditions under which managers can actively use upward influencers to boost productivity and performance – not just their own egos. When forming project teams, managers ought to pair highly vocal and motivated “upward influencers” with more collaboratively-driven “team players” in order to maximize team productivity and success. Moreover, upward influencers can serve as the communicative “glue” when onboarding new managers to lead teams or starting new projects that require lots of coordination and information sharing.
The working paper, Upward Influencers in Teams, is available to media outlets upon request.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, visit gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Wei Cai joined Columbia University in 2020. Her research interests revolve around management accounting, organizational culture, and diversity and inclusion. Her research broadly...Read more.