False praise but I love your journal (random number)Posted: February 4, 2012
You’ll excuse me writing a post that is reaction to my comment spam but a recent spate of spam reminded me of something important.
False or insincere praise is worse than no praise at all.
I use WordPress’s ARMY OF AUTOMATION to detect and corral my spam comments into an area where I can inspect them and delete them, without all of you having to read about false Google page rank updates, or notes saying things like “Wow, I loved this, keep it up 782346”. Things designed to take you to trap blogs or URLs to give some person somewhere some money. But I still manually review the spam to ensure that some poor ‘fan’ hasn’t written something that tipped the false positive scale. What this all reminded me of was my disappointment when I realised that something that I thought was personalised praise was actually automated nonsense, designed to suck me in. It’s deflating.
Some years ago, when I was just starting out, I received an e-mail from the chair of a relatively highly ranked conference inviting me to be on the program committee. Given that I’d published a bit in the area, I thought it was personal recognition and was really chuffed until my wife, very, VERY delicately, pointed out that it had gone to a giant mailing list called DBWORLD. (Yes, I should have noticed, but in those days I read the content before author and subject. These days, I do a lot more pre-filtering.) Every single person on that list had received that e-mail. This was a not a personal e-mail in recognition of any achievement on my part, it was a seat-filling exercise that had hit me as part of a wave.
There is a big difference between addressing small groups of people within the large, while openly admitting that you’re speaking in the large, and sending something that appears to be personal, but is secretly in the large. If you’re sending out messages of congratulations to the top performers in your class, why not spend the extra effort to send each person a message? They probably are going to talk about it and may notice how similar your message is – some may not care, of course, but some might. People who aren’t showing up? You can probably use blind carbon copy to send out the initial reminder, because it’s not SUCH a personalised message, and then personalise as they respond, or you can start personal, if you can manage it.
If you have a group of top students, but each one has nailed down a specific aspect of the course, noting the specific achievement as part of genuine and personal praise is, I suspect, going to have a far greater effect than a blanket e-mail saying “You’ve all done well”. “You’ve all done well” means I sorted the marks, selected the top 5 and pasted their e-mail into a mail merger. Specific praise, to reinforce that you have read it, you do know it, and you know at least some of that student’s mind, is going to reinforce the reality that you did mark it, what was submitted was noted, the work that went into it mattered.
This is what we’re saying when we produce genuine praise: “what you did mattered and it was good”
That’s why all feedback should be genuine and grounded in the work. Even if you’re giving general feedback to a class, I think it’s really helpful to find as much ‘resonant truth’ as possible – the feedback that everyone nods along to and goes ‘yes’. I could talk about authenticity and the importance of being genuine for hours but, once again, that’s another post.
Don’t get me wrong. Genuine praise and follow-up on the mass scale is better than none at all. If you have the time and resources, then we can probably all agree that personalised is better than general.
However, false praise, or insincere or misdirected praise, is counter-productive and really doesn’t have much place in our practices. It’s false and, ultimately, we’re about truth.