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There’s no universally correct way to be polite, according to linguistics

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Britain's Prince Charles laughs as he sits with a girl during his visit to the Swaminarayan School to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi, London March 4, 2009. REUTERS/Arthur Edwards/Pool (BRITAIN) - RTXCCDI

There’s no universally correct way to be polite. You wouldn’t ask your mother for a favor the same way you’d ask an acquaintance. You wouldn’t ask your boss for a favor the same way you’d ask your fellow employee or a subordinate. And you wouldn’t ask any of these people to tell you what time it is the same way you’d ask them to lend you $1,000 bucks.

And you shouldn’t. What it means to be polite doesn’t look the same across those three situations, and trying to be polite the same exact way in different circumstances can have seriously different effects.

We can’t understand politeness without understanding how it relates to “saving face.” This well-known idiom refers to saving yourself from embarrassment or losing someone’s respect, but what does it actually mean in practice? Social scientists like Erving Goffman have tied the concept of face to self-image, public image, and dignity. We do a lot of work, Goffman says, to avoid and correct threats to our face.

According to Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, who wrote a classic book on politeness, politeness is a set of strategies that speakers use to save their own face, the face of the person they’re talking to, or both.

The two types of politeness

Face consists of two competing needs, and politeness has to grapple with both. On one hand we want to be liked, appreciated, and approved of—but we also want to avoid being imposed upon.

There are politeness strategies that emphasize each of these needs: involvement politeness and restraint politeness. Small talk is a classic example of involvement politeness; so are compliments, jokes, and the use of address terms that suggest closeness, like “brother,” “buddy,” and “pal.” We use these features to emphasize closeness and solidarity, like when we need to give criticism, for example.

On the flip side, restraint-politeness strategies are often indirect or ambiguous. Among the ways we use restraint politeness are using questions instead of requests (Could you lend me a buck?”), minimizations or hedges (If it’s not out of the way, would you take me to the store?”), and apologies (Sorry, but…”). This way, the person asking for something can save face by acting as if they were not making a request in the first place, and the person listening can turn down the ask by not acknowledging it as a request. Consider the timely example of US president Donald Trump’s restraint politeness strategy with James Comey, which buried a request in an optimistic phrase: I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.”

Orders and requests make politeness strategies particularly clear because we very infrequently use bald imperative sentence structures without them. We only consider these types of demands polite in a few situations, such as when it’s a matter of urgency (“Look out!”) or when acting on the order is in the interest of the hearer (“Come in!”).

Politeness is about context

Politeness helps us save face. But what might cause someone to lose face so that we’d need to save it in the first place? Brown and Levinson argue that there are three factors that determine how serious a threat to face is. The more serious the threat is, the more features of politeness we incorporate into our speech.

First of all, how close are the people involved? The closer you are to someone, the more you can impose on them. For instance, your romantic partner will probably drive you home from surgery no matter how you ask, but what about that colleague you see twice a year? They might help you out, but asking them feels a lot less reasonable—and you’d probably go about it pretty differently.

Second, is someone relatively powerful? If there’s a power imbalance, the more powerful person can impose more. All other things being equal, parents can tell their children what to do more directly than the other way around.

Finally, what’s considered a big deal? For example, most people in the US consider money a sensitive subject. That means that if I ask about it, I’m probably going to couch it in a whole lot of politeness: “I hope this isn’t too personal of a question, but I’m trying to get a sense of how much money I really need to make it in New York, so I’m wondering if you might feel comfortable telling me what you earn.

Compare that sentence structure to requesting a totally different—and much less important—thing: “I hope this isn’t too personal of a question, but I’m trying to get a sense of how late I’m going to be to dinner, so I’m wondering if you might feel comfortable telling me what time it is.” Does that sound ridiculous? If it does, it’s because you’ve internalized the idea that money is a touchier subject than the time.

And it works the other way around, too. Patterns of politeness (and impoliteness) can tell us about relationships in a particular interaction, about status hierarchies in a society, and about taboos. Paying attention to who is particularly polite to whom can help us easily reverse-engineer a relationship’s dynamic. Think back to the last time you started a new job, or joined a new group of friends—you almost certainly figured out who was close, and who had the real power, by listening to how people talked to each other.

You can follow Jena on Twitter. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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The exact moment to end a client meeting, whether your client is Bob Dylan or Citibank


In her 41 years as a professional designer, Paula Scher has dealt with a lot of egos. That’s why she has become a mastermind of “client diplomacy”—drawing on experiences from her days designing record covers for moody musicians to her current job creating high-profile brand identities for complex bureaucracies including Microsoft, Citibank and MoMA.

Through books, magazines, frequent speaking engagements and even a recent Netflix documentary about her work, Scher is a superstar in design circles. A longtime partner at the design consultancy Pentagram, Scher, 68, has learned how to read a room and figured out how to tip client meetings in her favor. Her new 520-page monograph, Paula Scher: Works (Unit Editions) is as much a showcase of her award-winning creative output as her acuity with the psychology of boardroom dynamics.

Paula Scher: Works

One point she makes that applies far beyond the world of design: Knowing exactly when to end a meeting is a learned skill. From her four decades presenting her work, Scher has learned that a meeting’s final words matter enormously—they can even determine the fate of her work.

In a fascinating sequence from the Netflix series Abstract, Scher diagrams the emotional arc of a meeting, juxtaposed with an actual presentation of a design for New York City’s Public Theater.

After the initial gush of approval—with the response to the work going above expectations—a wave of doubt inevitably enters the discussion, she explains, and the perception of the work falls below expectations. An agile designer responds quickly by proposing a compromise, bringing the perception back up again.

Scher advises adjourning at this high point, instead of tapering off into awkward silences to squeeze out every bit of feedback. “What will happen [if it goes on] is the counter rebuttal to your offer will go below the reasonable level of expectation,” observes Scher. “[It] will continue on until you reach sudden death.”

A business meeting has archetypal characters, she says: “You can tell where the power is, because that’s where everyone’s eyes are,” explains Scher. “There are people who you might think are powerful, but they’re just saying a lot to impress the person in power. Then there are grenade-throwers…they lob a grenade just to shake things up.”

Presenters should learn to read a room’s power dynamic to know how to steer the conversation, she says, and that learning comes with experience. “I learned everything from working in the record industry,” says Scher in the book, recalling the decade she designed hundreds of covers, collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. “I learned how people make decisions in power structures…I’ve been able to use the experiences my entire working life, because they are always the same, regardless of technological and even cultural shifts.”

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People Don’t Follow Titles: Necessity and Sufficiency in Leadership

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“Colonel Graff: You have a habit of upsetting your commander.
Ender Wiggin: I find it hard to respect someone just because they outrank me, sir.”
— Orson Scott Card


Many leaders confuse necessary conditions for leadership with sufficient ones.

Titles often come with the assumption people will follow you based on a title. Whether by election, appointment, or divine right, at some point you were officially put in the position. But leadership is based on more than just titles.

Not only do title-based leaders feel like once they get the title that everyone will fall in line, but they also feel they are leading because they are in charge — a violation of the golden rules of leadership. This makes them toxic to organization culture.

A necessary condition for leadership is trust, which doesn't come from titles. You have to earn it.


Necessary conditions are those that must be present, but are not, on their own, enough for achievement.

Perhaps an easy example will help illuminate. Swinging at a pitch in baseball is necessary to hit the ball, but not sufficient to do so.

War offers another example. It's necessary to know the capabilities of your enemy and their positions, but that is not sufficient to win a battle.

Leadership can be very similar. Being in a position of leadership is necessary to lead an organization, but that is not sufficient to get people moving towards a common goal. Titles, on their own, do not confer legitimacy. And legitimacy is one of the sufficient conditions of leadership.

If your team, organization, or country doesn't view you as legitimate you will have a hard time getting anything done. Because they won’t work for you, and you can’t do it all yourself. Leadership without legitimacy is a case of multiply by zero.

There is a wonderful example of this, from the interesting history of the Mongolians. In his book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford tells an amazing story of the unlikely, but immensely successful, leadership of Manduhai the Wise.

250 years after Genghis Khan, the empire was in fragments. The Mongols had retreated into their various tribes, often fighting each other and nominally ruled by outsiders from China and the Middle East. There was still a Khan, but he exercised no real power. The Mongol tribes were very much at the mercy of their neighbors.

In 1470 the sitting Khan died, survived only by a junior wife. There were immediate suitors vying for her affection because by marrying her the title of Khan could be claimed. Her name was Manduhai. Instead of choosing the easy path of remarriage and an alliance, she decided to pursue her dream of uniting the Mongol nation.

First, she had to choose a consort that would allow her to keep the title of Queen. There was one remaining legitimate survivor of Genghis Khan’s bloodline – a sickly 7-year-old boy. Orphaned as a baby and neglected by his first caregiver, he had been under Manduhai’s protection for a few years. Because of his lineage, she took him to the Shrine of the First Queen and asked for divine blessings in installing him as the Great Khan. They would rule together, but clearly, due to his age and condition, she would be in charge.

Although her words would be addressed to the shrine, and she would face away from the crowd, there could be no question that, in addition to being the spiritual outcry of a pilgrim, these words constituted a desperate plea of a queen to her people. This would be the most important political speech of her life.

She was successful in securing the appointment. But Manduhai understood that the title of Great Khan for the little boy and Khatun (Queen) for her would not be enough. She needed the support of all the Mongol tribes to give the titles legitimacy, and here there were a significant number of obstacles to overcome.

Twice before in the previous generations, boys of his age had been proclaimed Great Khan, only to be murdered by their rivals before they could reach full maturity. Other fully grown men who bore the title were also ignominiously struck down and killed by the Muslim warlords who tried to control them.

First Manduhai had to keep herself and the boy, Dayan Khan, alive. Then she had to demonstrate that they were the right people to unite the Mongol tribes and ensure prosperity for all. This would take both physical battles and a strategic understanding of how to employ little power for great effect. Her success was by no means guaranteed.

Throughout their reign, as on this awkward inaugural day, they frequently benefited from the underestimation of their abilities by those who struggled against them. In the world where physical strength and mastery of the horse and bow seemed to be all that really mattered, no one seemed to anticipate the advantages of patient intelligence, careful planning, and consistency of action.

It was these traits that led Manduhai to carefully craft her plan of action. She needed to position herself as a true leader that could unite the Mongol tribes.

Vows, prayers, and rituals before a shrine added much needed scared legitimacy to Dayan Khan’s rule, but without force of arms, they amounted to empty gestures and wasted breath. Only after demonstrating that she had the skill to win, as well as the supernatural blessing to do so, could Manduhai hope to rule the Mongols. She had enemies on every side, and she needed to choose her first battle carefully. She had to confront each enemy, but she had to confront each in its own due time. Manduhai needed to manage the flow of conflicts by deciding when and where to fight and not allowing others to force her into a war for which she was not prepared or stood little chance of winning.

She made an important strategic alliance with one of the failed suitors, a popular and intelligent general who controlled the area immediately east of her power base. Then she went to battle to secure her western front. Some tribes supported her from the outset, due to the spiritual power of her partnership with the boy, the ‘true Khan’. The rest she conquered, support snowballing behind her.

In addition to its strategic importance, the western campaign against the Oirat was a notable propaganda victory, demonstrating that Manduhai had the blessing of the Shrine of the First Queen and the Eternal Blue Sky. Manduhai showed that she was in control of her country.

Grinding it out in the trenches inspired support. Manduhai demonstrated the courage and intelligence to lead and to provide what her people needed. She was not an empire builder, seeking to conquer the world. Rather, she was pragmatic desiring to unify the Mongol nation to ensure they had the means to thwart any future attempt at takeover by a foreign power.

In contrast to the expansive territorial acquisition favored by prior generations of steppe conquerors, Manduhai pursued a strategy of geographic precision. Better to control the right spot rather than be responsible for conquering, organizing, and running a massive empire of reluctant subjects. … Rather than trying to conquer and occupy the extensive links of the Silk Route or the vast expanse of China, she sought to conquer just the strategic spot from which to control them.

Her story teaches us the difference between necessity and sufficiency when it comes to leadership.

Manduhai ticked all the necessary boxes, being a Queen, choosing a descendant of Genghis Khan to rule by her side, and asking for meaningful spiritual blessings. While necessary these were not sufficient to rule. To actually be accepted as a leader, she had to prove herself both on the battlefield and in strategic negotiations. She understood that people would only follow her if they believed in her, and saw that she was working for them. And finally, she also considered how to use her leadership to create something that would continue long after she had gone.

Manduhai concentrated the remainder of her life in protecting what she had accomplished and making certain that the nation could sustain itself after her departure. With the same assiduous devotion she had applied to the battlefield and the unification of the Mongol nation, Manduhai and Dayan Khan now set to the reorganization of the Mongol government and its protection in the future.

In this, she succeeded. She cemented her power as Queen by ultimately working for the peace and prosperity of the entire Mongol nation. Perhaps this is why she is remembered by them as Mandukhai the Wise.

Sponsored by: Royce & Associates – Small Cap Specialists with Unparalleled Knowledge and Experience..

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All Models Are Wrong

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How is your journey towards understanding Farnam Street’s latticework of mental models going? Is it proving useful? Changing your view of the world? If the answer is that it’s going well that’s good. There’s just one tiny hitch.

All models are wrong.

Yep. It's the truth. However, there is another part to that statement:

All models are wrong, some are useful.

Those words come from the British statistician, George Box. In a groundbreaking 1976 paper, Box revealed the fallacy of our desire to categorize and organize the world. We create models (a term with many applications), once to confuse them for reality.

Box also stated:

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

What Exactly Is A Model?

First, we should understand precisely what a model is.

The dictionary definition states a model is ‘a representation, generally in miniature, to show the construction or appearance of something’ or ‘a simplified description, especially a mathematical one, of a system or process, to assist calculations and predictions.’

For our purposes here, we are better served by the second definition. A model is a simplification which fosters understanding.

Think of an architectural model. These are typically a small scale model of a building, made before it's built. Its purpose is to show what the building will look like and to help people working on the project to develop a clear picture of the overall feel. In the iconic scene from Zoolander, Derek (played by Ben Stiller) looks at the architectural model of his propsed ‘school for kids who can’t read good’ and shouts “What is this? A center for ants??”

That scene illustrates the wrong way to understand models: Too literally.

Why We Use Models- And Why They Work

At Farnam Street, we believe in using models for the purpose of building a massive, but finite amount of fundamental, invariant knowledge about how the world really works. Applying this knowledge is the key to making good decisions and avoiding stupidity.

“Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility. Science gives us power. The more useful that power, the better the science.”

— Yuval Noah Harari

Time-tested models allow us to understand how things work in the real world. And understanding how things work prepares us to make better decisions without expending too much mental energy in the process.

Instead of relying on fickle and specialized facts, we can learn versatile concepts. The mental models we cover are intended to be widely applicable.

It's crucial for us to understand as many mental models as possible. As the adage goes, a little knowledge can be dangerous and creates more problems than total ignorance. No single model is universally applicable – we find exceptions for nearly everything. Even hardcore physics has not been totally solved.

“The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”

— Isaac Asimov

Take a look at almost any comment section on the internet and you are guaranteed to find at least one pedant raging about a minor perceived inaccuracy, throwing out the good with the bad. While ignorance and misinformation are certainly not laudable, neither is an obsession with perfection.

Like heuristics, models work as a consequence of the fact they are usually helpful in most situations, not because they are always helpful in a small number of situations.

Models can assist us in making predictions and forecasting the future. Forecasts are never guaranteed, yet they provide us with a degree of preparedness and comprehension of the future. For example, a weather forecast which claims it will rain today may get that wrong. Still, it's correct often enough to enable us to plan appropriately and bring an umbrella.

Mental Models and Minimum Viable Products

Think of mental models as minimum viable products.

Sure, all of them can be improved. But the only way that can happen is if we try them out, educate ourselves and collectively refine them.

We can apply one of our mental models, Occam’s razor, to this. Occam’s razor states that the simplest solution is usually correct. In the same way, our simplest mental models tend to be the most useful. This is because there is minimal room for errors and misapplication.

“The world doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for complete answers before it takes action.”

— Daniel Gilbert

Your kitchen knives are not as sharp as they could be. Does that matter as long as they still cut vegetables? Your bed is not as comfortable as it could be. Does that matter if you can still get a good night’s sleep in it? Your internet is not as fast as it could be. Does that matter as long as you can load this article? Arguably not. Our world runs on the functional, not the perfect. This is what a mental model is – a functional tool. A tool which maybe could be a bit sharper or easier to use, but still does the job.

The statistician David Hand made the following statement in 2014;

In general, when building statistical models, we must not forget that the aim is to understand something about the real world. Or predict, choose an action, make a decision, summarize evidence, and so on, but always about the real world, not an abstract mathematical world: our models are not the reality.

For example, in 1960, Georg Rasch said the following:

When you construct a model you leave out all the details which you, with the knowledge at your disposal, consider inessential…. Models should not be true, but it is important that they are applicable, and whether they are applicable for any given purpose must, of course, be investigated. This also means that a model is never accepted finally, only on trial.

Imagine a world where physics like precision is prized over usefulness.

We would lack medical care because a medicine or procedure can never be perfect. In a world like this, we would possess little scientific knowledge, because research can never be 100% accurate. We would have no art because a work can never be completed. We would have no technology because there are always little flaws which can be ironed out.

“A model is a simplification or approximation of reality and hence will not reflect all of reality … While a model can never be “truth,” a model might be ranked from very useful, to useful, to somewhat useful to, finally, essentially useless.”

— Ken Burnham and David Anderson

In short, we would have nothing. Everything around us is imperfect and uncertain. Some things are more imperfect than others, but issues are always there. Over time, incremental improvements happen through unending experimentation and research.

The Map is Not the Territory

As we know, the map is not the territory. A map can be seen as a symbol or index of a place, not an icon.

When we look at a map of Paris, we know it is a representation of the actual city. There are bound to be flaws; streets which have been renamed, demolished buildings, perhaps a new Metro line. Even so, the map will help us find our way. It is far more useful to have a map showing the way from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord (a tool) than to know how many meters they are apart (a piece of trivia.)

Someone who has spent a lot of time studying a map will be able to use it with greater ease, just like a mental model. Someone who lives in Paris will find the map easier to understand than a tourist, just as someone who uses a mental model in their day to day life will apply it better than a novice. As long as there are no major errors, we can consider the map useful, even if it is by no means a reflection of reality. Gregory Bateson writes in Steps to an Ecology of Mind that the purpose of a map is not to be true, but to have a structure which represents truth within the current context.

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

— Alfred Korzybski

Physical maps generally become more accurate as time passes. Not long ago, they often included countries which didn’t exist, omitted some which did, portrayed the world as flat or fudged distances. Nowadays, our maps have come a long way.

The same goes for mental models – they are always evolving, being revised – never really achieving perfection. Certainly, over time, the best models are revised only slightly, but we must never consider our knowledge “set”.

Another factor to consider in using models is to take into account what they're used for.

Many mental models (e.g. entropy, critical mass and activation energy) are based upon scientific and mathematical concepts. A person who works in those areas will obviously need a deeper understanding of it than someone who want to learn to think better when making investment decisions. They will need a different map and a more detailed one showing elements which the rest of us have no need for.

“A model which took account of all the variation of reality would be of no more use than a map at the scale of one to one.”

— Joan Robinson

In Partial Enchantments of the Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges provides an even more interesting analysis of the confusion between models and reality:

Let us imagine that a portion of the soil of England has been leveled off perfectly and that on it a cartographer traces a map of England. The job is perfect; there is no detail of the soil of England, no matter how minute that is not registered on the map; everything has there its correspondence. This map, in such a case, should contain a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictions.

How Do We Know If A Model Is Useful?

This is a tricky question to answer. When looking at any model, it is helpful to ask some of the following questions:

  • How long has this model been around? As a general rule, mental models which have been around for a long time (such as Occam’s razor) will have been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny. Time is an excellent curator, trimming away inefficient ideas. A mental model which is new may not be particularly refined or versatile. Many of our mental models originate from Ancient Greece and Rome, meaning they have to be functional to have survived this long.
  • Is it a representation of reality? In other words, does it reflect the real world? Or is it based on abstractions?
  • Does this model apply to multiple areas? The more elastic a model is, the more valuable it is to learn about. (Of course, be careful not to apply the model where it doesn't belong. Mind Feynman: “You must not fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool.”)
  • How did this model originate? Many mental models arise from scientific or mathematical concepts. The more fundamental the domain, the more likely the model is to be true and lasting.
  • Is it based on first principles? A first principle is a foundational concept which cannot be deduced from any other concept and must be known.
  • Does it require infinite regress? Infinite regress refers to something which is justified by principles, which themselves require justification by other principles. A model based on infinite regress is likely to required extensive knowledge of a particular topic, and have minimal real-world application.

When using any mental model, we must avoid becoming too rigid. There are exceptions to all of them, and situations in which they are not applicable.

Think of the latticework as a toolkit. That's why it pays to do the work up front to put so many of them in your toolbox at a deep, deep level. If you only have one or two, you're likely to attempt to use them in places that don't make sense. If you've absorbed them only lightly, you will not be able to use them when the time is at hand.

If on the other hand, you have a toolbox full of them and they're sunk in deep, you're more likely to pull out the best ones for the job exactly when they are needed.

Too many people are caught up wasting time on physics-like precision in areas of practical life that do not have such precision available. A better approach is to ask “Is it useful?” and, if yes, “To what extent?”

Mental models are a way of thinking about the world that prepares us to make good decisions in the first place.

Sponsored by: Royce & Associates – Small Cap Specialists with Unparalleled Knowledge and Experience..

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Good managers give constructive criticism—but truly masterful leaders offer constructive praise

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Getting feedback from your coworkers is scary. A leader at one of my previous jobs once said that my emotional stability fell somewhere between that of a squalling infant and pubescent teen. (Cool, cool.) Now research shows that not only are most managers bad at giving constructive criticism—they’re even less likely to give constructive praise.

In two surveys conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, each of nearly 8,000 managers, 44% of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. One-fifth avoid the practice entirely. Even more surprisingly, nearly 40% of leaders conceded to never giving positive reinforcement, either.

That’s a big problem—both for employees and for their boss’s ability to manage them effectively. The study found that a boss’s willingness to give positive feedback was the strongest predictor of whether their direct reports perceive them to be effective, honest communicators. (Managers’ comfort giving negative feedback barely influenced this perception.) Ironically, managers who report regularly giving negative feedback were most likely to believe they gave “honest, straightforward feedback,” regardless of whether they also used positive reinforcement.

Most leaders “vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement,” Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman, CEO and president of Zenger/Folkman, write in Harvard Business Review. An abundance of research shows that giving positive feedback increases employees’ sense that they’re learning and growing at their jobs, makes them feel valued, and leads to increased confidence and competence. A 2015 Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose managers communicated their strengths were fully engaged in their work, as compared to 31% of employees whose managers only communicated their weaknesses. One study found that high-performing teams receive nearly six times more positive feedback than less effective teams—evidence that positive reinforcement really does help the bottom line.

So why do managers shy away from a seemingly simple way to motivate their employees? Zenger says that some fear that offering positive feedback will create close relationships with employees they may need to fire in the future. Others think positive feedback will be interpreted as “blowing smoke,” or utterly disingenuous. And unfortunately, some managers see positive feedback as “un-macho”—a sign of weakness in competitive, male-dominated industries.

“The final reason, I suspect, is that when you begin to pass on approbation and positive feedback, you are setting yourself up as a judge toward the other person,” Zenger says in an interview, “and many of us resist being in that position.” It takes self-confidence to tell another person what they’re good at and why, with the underlying implication that you’re in a position to be able to discern such things.

But once you overcome potential emotional barriers to giving praise, there’s a pretty simple formula for offering positive feedback: Be specific, discuss the impact of the other person’s behavior, and show your gratitude.

General compliments like “Awesome job on that presentation,” or “You’re a great writer” may make an employee feel good, but they rarely shape long-term behavior and competency. When praising a colleague, it’s essential to single out the specific behavior or trait you observed and when you observed it, says Zenger. For example: “In last week’s meeting, I noticed you were willing to question the CEO’s vision for our pod’s sales goals—I really appreciate your confidence.”

Such clarity allows the recipient to reflect on and internalize specific behaviors, without over- or underestimating their general competency. This specificity is especially important when offering praise for uncommon behaviors (like questioning a CEO). If employees don’t know that they were right to take a risk, they may shy away from repeating it in the future for fear that they’ll be judged.

It’s also key to communicate why you’re praising someone. Managers should always convey how an employee’s behavior positively impacts the performance of the organization or team, says Zenger. This context helps instill confidence instead of arrogance by linking an individual’s positive behavior to collective goals. It’s always nice to be told you’re talented. But for the purposes of getting good work done, you’re far more likely to be motivated by knowing that because you buckled down and met a tough deadline, you saved the company from losing a big client.

The praise you offer can be short, and should always end with a personalized “thank you,” says Zenger. Employees who feel valued report better physical and mental health, and higher levels of work engagement, satisfaction, and motivation.

And whenever possible, Zenger says, it’s best to give constructive praise in person. “Effective leadership is all about making an emotional connection with people in order to have a greater amount of influence,” he says. “There’s no better platform for feedback, positive or negative, then a face-to-face discussion, given the impact of body language and tone of voice.” We all assign a lot of weight to nonverbal cues, no matter what’s being said: Studies show that people who receive positive feedback coupled with negative emotional cues, like narrowed eyes, feel worse about their performance than people who receive negative feedback paired with a smile.

While I was working on this article, my own team decided on an experiment: We created a Google document where each of us did our best to call out one concrete quality or skill that we really appreciated in our colleagues, and explain how it’s affected the team or our work. Though we get along well and admire each other greatly, the challenge immediately felt foreign. One colleague suggested keeping the feedback anonymous—evidence of how uncomfortable it can be to get honest with your coworkers, even when you’re saying good things.

I found myself periodically refreshing the doc, giddy to see what my coworkers thought about each other, but wary to read about myself. My editor and I both admitted to feeling strangely embarrassed while reading compliments others had given us, perhaps because we’ve so deeply internalized the narrative—especially as women—that modesty and self-effacement are fundamental to success. But we got over it: The exercise was heartwarming, and as one colleague noted, “Reading about other people’s strengths makes me realize the specific ways I want to improve.”

In-person feedback is great, but we also found merit in written praise. “I really liked having to consciously think about and put into words what I loved about my colleagues,” said one editor. “The process of writing it out (versus verbal feedback) made me think about it a lot more and reflect, and knowing it wasn’t ephemeral and that it could be referred back to, and not interpreted in a thousand different ways, is good too.”

One thing is clear: Giving and receiving feedback can make you feel pretty vulnerable. But it’s worth taking the emotional risk to let your colleagues know just what you value about them. As my editor said, “Giving positive feedback is like giving a present—you fuss over it and worry maybe the other person won’t like it, but really, it makes both of you feel good.”

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The danger of robo advisers, according to a star human of the investing world

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There have always been doubts about whether money managers are worth their keep. Now that there’s a viable alternative—algorithms—for people who don’t want to manage their money themselves, criticism of human money managers has only grown louder.

But Jeffrey Gundlach rises to the humans’ defense in an interview with Bloomberg News:

“It’s a one-size-fits-all financial solution,” he said. “Everybody gets the same portfolio, which means everybody owns the same stock, which means when they all decide to get out you cause a crash.”

Of course he would say that! Gundlach, one of the top-ranked bond managers on the planet, is the co-founder and CEO of DoubleLine Capital, which oversees more than $100 billion, and he is a human.

Some studies indicate that active managers rarely outperform passive funds, which usually track indexes tied to broad swaths of the market and can come with very low fees. But Gundlach manages a bond fund that has handily beaten its benchmark since its inception. Arguably the biggest competitive threat to the fees he charges is not other human managers but robots.

With robo-advisors, the idea is to bring investing strategies together with algorithmic decision-making to give investors a cheaper, hopefully superior, service. Robos typically pour investors’ cash into passive instruments like exchange-traded funds. They can automate things like portfolio balancing and find ways to minimize taxes, which are generally boring services that computers are well equipped to handle.

Computerized advisors debuted about a decade ago. Early pioneers like Wealthfront are completely automated and have had success in winning over millennial savers. Others, like Betterment, now provide a type of hybrid service that includes access to a human advisor.

Assets managed by robos is growing quickly, but even the largest is pretty small compared to the overall market. Vanguard has a version of hybrid robo-advice that was launched in May 2015 and oversees about $65 billion. At least half of its users are over age 65.

Lots of big-name money managers are getting involved in the robo business now. UBS started one, and BlackRock is acquiring a stake (paywall) in a European robo after buying a US automated advisor in 2015. Estimates suggest the market could balloon to $5 trillion in the next decade, which could drive a lot of cash into passive investment and vaporize fees for many brokers and wealth managers.

While there have been flash crashes and market dislocations of late, most of the growth in robo advice has taken place since the 2008 financial crisis, so it’s yet to be determined how the platforms will perform in a severe downturn as their assets increase. It’s hard to know how the mechanics will hold up in a panic as correlations rise.

One thing for sure is that the machines are likely to be less interesting than Gundlach, who seven years ago described himself as “amazingly brilliant analytically” and as the “guy who makes it rain the desert.” If it doesn’t involve a cataclysmic market crash, the future of finance could be cheaper and more boring.

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