I recently read a Twitter post that purported to be thanking people, but instead of naming the individuals the twitterer said, “Too many people to thank. You know who you are.” That’s not really a thank-you; it’s not a genuine expression that would be valued by the recipients. It’s actually saying “I have too many people to thank, so I won’t thank any of you.” Or, “I can’t remember everyone’s names, so I won’t remember any of them.” It’s not a compliment. It’s an insult.
The person writing the Twitter post might be excused because he was confined by the 140 character limitation of the medium. Others, though, cannot so easily be forgiven. At my retirement dinner party, the head of my organization said to me and the other retirees present “We don’t know what work you’ve done, but you do.” I was stunned. I thought, “I worked eighteen years at this institution and you can’t look in a file, talk to a couple of people, or ask me what I’ve done?”
All of the seven people who were being recognized that day had done some remarkable things during their careers; they had blazed new trails, engaged in important research, improved countless lives, and effected positive changes of various kinds. It hurts to have one’s life’s work reduced to a smug throw-away line, especially when one is expecting some rare appreciation. This one man’s ignorant comment was, thankfully, followed by many stories and accolades that praised the work of the retirees. Even so, I’ve never forgotten it.
Sadly, we only know who we are as we see ourselves reflected in the eyes and words of other people. It seems pretty clear that people thrive when they are praised and wither when they are criticized. And, it takes a lot of compliments to counteract one slight.
If a supervisor tells a co-worker nine things they did right and one thing they did wrong, guess which will have the most impact? Yup, the one thing they criticized. No doubt about it. Back when I taught business communications, I always advised students to separate praise from criticism so that the one would not be tainted by the other. Of course, that is not always possible. As an instructor, I had to provide both praise and criticism on assignments, and I tried to create a good news-bad news-good news pattern to soften any blows. This became known as a shit sandwich, though, so I’m not sure it was a good idea.
Regardless, criticisms should always specific to particular attributes of the work and praise should be directed at particular persons. That’s why those bland statements of thanks or approval are really ineffective. They aren’t specific to a particular activity and they aren’t specific to a particular person. They just make the speaker sound lazy and smug, which is probably not the effect they were going for.