On Cheap Praise and Roses

by F.

Lucy Kellaway rightly pokes fun at those broadcast messages that come from the CEO or VP to your division:

these blanket thank yous spectacularly fail to create any warmth except possibly in the breast of the sender….

While this literary genre is becoming increasingly popular among CEOs and top managers, most of them are remarkably bad at it. A couple of weeks ago, John Mack give a webinar for Morgan Stanley employees in which he said the firm’s thumping new profitability was down to the strong performance of every individual. “Why did we come back so quickly?” he asked. “Because our DNA is the DNA of excellence.”

Far from feeling gratified by this plaudit, one of his employees was only moved enough to pass it on to me. What exactly was Mr Mack driving at, I wonder? Was he saying: we are excellent because we are excellent? Or did he simply mean “Ra! Ra! Ra!” – in which case it might have been better to come straight out and say that without the pseudo-scientific baggage of DNA, which is always a sure sign that what follows will be tosh.

But execs are not that dumb. These blanket messages are for the masses; they cost little, and so seem to be of little worth. On the other hand, if they make a few gullible people happy, thy have paid for themselves.

In addition, most likely the exec has also sent a number of specially target messages, which, while no more sincere, probably have some effect, at least if Stanford economist Muriel Niederle is right. She consults for Cupid.com and helped that site solve a little problem:

On that online dating site, women face a problem… Men signal their interest in women by sending electronic messages, but because it is easy to send hundreds of messages, it is difficult and time-consuming for women to separate spammers from good prospects.

The solution? Roses:

In the summer of 2005, at the suggestion of Prof. Niederle and MIT economist Dan Ariely, Cupid began allotting each of its male members two electronic roses a month, which they could send along with messages to women whom they wanted to impress. The scarcity of roses motivates the suitors to be selective and serious.

“It’s been a wonderful thing,” says Eric Straus, CEO of Cupid.com, who estimates the roses have increased a suitor’s chances of getting a reply 35%. “One of the problems in online dating is that men are ignored and women are inundated. Anything that allows a message to stand out is a great benefit.”

The last quote is from an article in the WSJ or the hiring process for economists, which is not particularly efficient. The AEA is trying some novel ideas, including “roses.” But

some have doubts that economists would ever willingly submit to a fully efficient market, such as the one that assigns doctors to hospitals. “The academic job market is a thing that could be enormously rationalized,” says Prof. Colander, who has proposed an automated clearinghouse for economists. “But that doesn’t mean that economists want to have their lives structured by a market.”