You might be a total genius, but I wouldn’t tell you so
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: April 10 2011 17:19 | Last updated: April 10 2011 17:19
Last week, when a woman in our travel department booked me a flight, I sent her an e-mail: “That’s absolutely marvellous – thanks so much.”
In congratulating her so warmly for doing her job, I thought I was being charming and gracious, but now I see I was actually doing something rather darker. Not only was I debasing the language, but was pushing a drug that turns people into demotivated, infantile, praise-dependent junkies.
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This rethink was brought on by a discussion with a columnist friend who has just gone to work for a rival newspaper.
He told me that his first column was declared by his new editor to be “utterly brilliant”. The second was deemed “a simply extraordinary piece of writing”. And when he filed the third, he got an e-mail back before the editor had even had time to read it saying: “Got it – you’re a total genius.”
When I said that this sounded rather nice, he gave me a scornful look. It made him think his editor stupid, which made him feel stupid by extension. To be considered a total genius for merely delivering his column on time was degrading all round.
My friend may not, in fact, be a total genius but is definitely a total weirdo – at least by comparison to me. I am exceedingly fond of being called a genius; even though I prefer to have genius status granted for big things, I’m prepared to accept it for any achievement at all, even for pressing send on my computer.
In fact there is no amount of praise that sets my teeth on edge. Mine is a debased condition, but is at least perfectly normal. There was a study done recently by a woman at the University of California, Berkeley, who found that you can go on and on laying on the flattery and it goes on working. There is no level when people say: stop, now you’ve gone too far.
This means we all go too far all the time. In the US, people have been over-egging praise for generations. But now in Britain, proud traditions of cynicism and understatement have been cast aside. The most banal observation counts as an “insight”, while anything that vaguely makes sense is said to have “compelling logic”. In the UK, all workers are called “talent” no matter how profoundly untalented they actually are, and even this is not enough. At KPMG, every member of staff is a genius. “We have 138,000 outstanding professionals,” it says on its website, an exaggeration so gross that I would think twice before allowing KPMG anywhere near my audit.
The result of such inflationary pressure is that language has ceased to be a store of meaning. One evening last week I was judging some awards for business TV programmes and one of my fellow judges described his favourite entry as “moderately interesting”. At the time I was faintly disgusted by his lack of enthusiasm, but now I see he was quite right: most business TV is pretty feeble and so to be moderately interesting is pretty high praise.
The same day, I’d observed an editor in my own office tying himself in knots trying to describe an article that he genuinely admired. “What can I say?” he asked, paused, and then went on: “To edit copy like this . . . is . . . a privilege.”
Congratulation inflation not only damages language, it is bad for us psychologically. Praise is a Class A drug and we crave more and get upset when we don’t get any in sufficiently pure form.
When I was told recently by someone that they had “liked” my column I felt downcast. Liked? I thought, reaching what seemed to me the inevitable conclusion that they therefore hated it.
The most worrying thing about over-egged praise is that it makes us less good at our jobs. Not because it makes us complacent, but because it makes us neurotic.
There was a fascinating experiment done a decade ago at Columbia University, comparing 10-year-olds who were praised for being clever to those who were praised for diligence. The first group got distressed and demotivated when faced with any task that they couldn’t do easily. The second met failure with composure: they simply worked harder to succeed next time.
As most workers are similar to 10-year-olds, praise at work should be doled out in the same way – never for inspiration, always for perspiration. Fortunately, according to this distinction, I deserve some praise for filing this column. The wireless router at home is on the blink, and so getting online has required many hours of extreme aggravation on the phone to Virgin, and then calling a neighbour to use their wireless network. Thus, by dint of successfully having pressed send, I am a total genius, after all.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.