Kiss the Ring: Hierarchy
by Dr. Karen Otazo
Truth About Managing Your Career…And Nothing But The Truth.
Someone once asked a Washington insider how to deal with
important people whom you can’t stand. His reply? “You put
on your respectful face and you don’t blink.” This strategy
is known in business circles as “kissing the ring.” Its
origins lie in a much earlier era, when royalty and clerics
wore rings of office denoting their status. Bowing your head
as you kissed their rings was how you showed respect for
their office, while not necessarily feeling that sentiment
towards the characters themselves.
Why go to
the trouble to show deference to someone you don’t
personally like or respect? In the cut and thrust world of
business, as in the political sphere, it’s all about
survival. Or, to look at it more positively, enlightened
self-interest. Like it or not, the business world is
structured by a strong sense of hierarchy. Why else would we
be so fixated on gaining promotions and better titles? Those
high up can have a significant impact upon your reputation
and career: positive if they like you and see you playing by
the rules, negative if they feel slighted by you in some
way. Showing them the appropriate respect helps keep your
career path obstacle free.
“Kissing the ring” might mean responding in a neutral to
positive way when someone important says something off base
in a meeting. Or staying positive with your boss when he or
she doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do or say.
However irritated or amazed you feel, keep your facial
expression kind and free of negativity, a kind of poker
face. It’s worth practicing this in front of the mirror so
that it’s ready to put on when you need it.
“Kissing the ring” doesn’t mean being sycophantic though.
It’s just about treading carefully around egos. There’s
nothing wrong with telling a senior person that you think
there might be a better way of doing things, but just make
sure that you think strategically and don’t react there and
then, especially if there are others present. If you are
genuinely concerned about something you might want to bring
it up in private in a neutral way but not make a big deal
out of it. You do this by talking about it in a low-key
way, tactfully introducing your point by saying, “By the
way, what do you think of…” or, “Is there is a case to be
made for this other point of view?”
Are there “don’t kiss the ring” moments too? You bet. As
soon as anything looks the slightest bit immoral or illegal
you need to stop and think. Don’t jump to conclusions, but
once you’ve confirmed that something improper is up, do
everything you can to extricate yourself from the situation
before you get into trouble. If, for example, your company
requires that the highest level person at a dinner should
pick up the expenses then you might hesitate before paying
for something so that your boss doesn’t have to put it on
his or her expense report. While illegality is something
that you should always report, without exception. There are
ex-employees of Enron or Health South, currently in jail,
who probably wish they had spoken up, or even left their
jobs, rather than keeping mum.
“Kissing the ring” is one of a repertoire of respectful
behaviors that will serve you in good stead with high
ranking people. At some point in your career you will have
to suck in your gut and show deference to a senior person
whom you can’t stand. Be prepared for it.