Political Skills which Increase Income

Summary: This article is intended for those who are “earning to give” (i.e. maximize income so that it can be donated to charity). It is basically an annotated bibliography of a few recent meta-analyses of predictors of income.

Key Results

  • The degree to which management “sponsors” your career development is an important predictor of your salary, as is how skilled you are politically.

  • Despite the stereotype of a silver-tongued salesman preying on people’s biases, rational appeals are generally the best tactic.

  • After rationality, the best tactics are types of ingratiation, including flattery and acting modest.

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:




Political Knowledge & Skills


Education Level


Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests)




Training and Skill Development Opportunities


Hours Worked


Career Sponsorship


(all significant at p = .05)

(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)

Before we go on, a few caveats: while these correlations are significant and important, none are overwhelming (the authors cite Cohen as saying the range 0.24-0.36 is “medium” and correlations over 0.37 are “large”). Also, in addition to the usual correlation/​causation concerns, there is lots of cross-correlation: e.g. older people might have greater political knowledge but less education, thereby confusing things. For a discussion of moderating variables, see the paper itself.

Career Sponsorship

There are two broad models of career advancement: contest-mobility and sponsorship-mobility. They are best illustrated with an example.

Suppose Peter and Penelope are both equally talented entry-level employees. Under the contest-mobility model, they would both be equally likely to get a raise or promotion, because they are equally skilled.

Sponsorship-mobility theorists argue that even if Peter and Penelope are equally talented, it’s likely that one of them will catch the eye of senior management. Perhaps it’s due to one of them having an early success by chance, making a joke in a meeting, or simply just having a more memorable name, like Penelope. This person will be singled out for additional training and job opportunities. Because of this, they’ll have greater success in the company, which will lead to more opportunities etc. As a result, their initial small discrepancy in attention gets multiplied into a large differential.

The authors of the metastudy found that self-reported sponsorship levels (i.e. how much you feel the management of your company “sponsors” you) have a significant, although moderate, relationship to salary. Therefore, the level at which you currently feel sponsored in your job should be a factor when you consider alternate opportunities.

The Dilbert Effect

The strongest predictor of salary (tied with education level) is what the authors politely term “Political Knowledge & Skills”—less politely, how good you are at manipulating others.

Several popular books (such as Cialdini’s Influence) on the subject of influencing others exist, and the study of these “influence tactics” in business stretches back 30 years to Kipnis, Schmidt and Wilkinson. Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:




Definition (From Higgins et al.)



Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one’s request



Using behaviors designed to increase the target’s liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants

Upward Appeal


Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one’s way



Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable

of completing a task



Using a forceful manner to get what one wants



Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what

one wants

(Only ingratiation and rationality are significant.)

This site has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

How to be Ingratiating

Gordon analyzed 69 studies of ingratiation and found the following. (Unlike the previous two sections, success here is measured in lab tests as well as in career advancement. However, similar but less comprehensive results have been found in terms of career success):



Weighted Effectiveness (Cohen’s d difference between control and intervention)


Other Enhancement



Opinion Conformity


“Go along to get along”



Any of the following tactics: Self-promotion, self-deprecation, apologies, positive nonverbal displays and name usage



Includes studies where the participants weren’t told which strategy to use, in addition to when they were instructed to use multiple strategies

Rendering Favors


Self-presentation is split further:



Weighted Effect Size






Apologizing for poor performance



When the participant is told in generic terms to improve their self-presentation

Nonverbal behavior and name usage


Nonverbal behavior includes things like wearing perfume. Name usage means referring to people by name instead of a pronoun.




One important moderator is the direction of the appeal. If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren’t far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero—even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women. The most important caveat is that lab studies find much larger effect sizes than in the field, to the extent that the average field effect for the ingratiating tactics is negative. This is probably due to the fact that lab experiments can be better controlled.


It’s unlikely that a silver-tongued receptionist will out-earn an introverted engineer. But simple techniques like flattery and attempting to get “sponsored” can appreciably improve returns, to the extent that political skills are one of the strongest predictors of salaries.

I would like to thank Brian Tomasik and Gina Stuessy for reading early drafts of this article.


Cohen, Jacob. Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences. Psychology Press, 1988.

Gordon, Randall A. “Impact of ingratiation on judgments and evaluations: A meta-analytic investigation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71.1 (1996): 54.

Higgins, Chad A., Timothy A. Judge, and Gerald R. Ferris. “Influence tactics and work outcomes: a meta‐analysis.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 24.1 (2003): 89-106.

Judge, Timothy A., and Robert D. Bretz Jr. “Political influence behavior and career success.” Journal of Management 20.1 (1994): 43-65.

Kipnis, David, Stuart M. Schmidt, and Ian Wilkinson. “Intraorganizational influence tactics: Explorations in getting one’s way.” Journal of Applied psychology 65.4 (1980): 440.

Ng, Thomas WH, et al. “Predictors of objective and subjective career success: A meta‐analysis.” Personnel psychology 58.2 (2005): 367-408.