The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

―Norman Vincent Peale

UnknownThe phrase “world class” appears so often in reviews I’ve seen that it has become a cliché. It is a completely unnecessary throwaway compliment handed out like candy on Halloween. It’s become expected, hollow praise that ultimately undermines any honest critique that follows its utterance. It’s time to stop handing out this compliment unless the situation calls for it, which is almost never.

Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.

―Benjamin Franklin

If I were to believe the external reviews of organizations and projects I’ve seen, I live an immensely charmed life. I’ve moved from organization-to-organization and projecUnknown-4t-to-project all of them being “world class”. The first few times I heard it, I felt great. Like wow, I’m a high performing individual in a world class organization, doing world class research. I must be really great too. As time went on, I kept hearing this even if the review was a complete train wreck. The comment would come even if the content of the review were decisively mediocre.

Truth builds trust.

― Marilyn Suttle

By now I’ve heard this compliment so often that I now hear, “now for the bullshit filled, Unknown-5ego massaging part of the review.” Are the organizations I work for so weak-willed and pathetic that they need this sort of garbage? Is the overly defensive and meagerly technical content of the review actually worthy of such high praise? Increasingly this oft-heard phrase has become an excuse to dismiss everything the review has to say. Mostly for the sentiment that if they think that was “world class”, these guys are a bunch a bozos. They are either stupid or dishonest, if not both. Are we paying them to give us this empty praise? How did we find people with such low standards?

 It takes strength and courage to admit the truth.

― Rick Riordan

More than simply being a half-hearted and empty compliment, the comment “world class” allows those being reviewed to discount and ignore all the criticism that follows. If we are world class, why do we have to listen to these criticisms? It allows any critique to become optional and half-hearted. For those of us paying attention it makes the entire review’s integrity seem questionable. I walk away most of the time thinking did the reviewers really mean that? Did they actually buy the shit we were selling?

What a sad state of affairs.

What makes this even more critical is the necessity of hard-nosed critique of our current organizations. The research labs I work at are in complete free-fall in terms of quality. At some time in the past these organizations were world-class, but no more. By telling us these lies we are allowing the damage to continue unchecked. We are being horribly mismanaged and savaged by external and internal forces that are continually dragging our quality down.

Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.

― Warren W. Wiersbe

The Labs have adopted a modern social contract with employees and increasingly treat the research staff like commodities, and undermine the career prospects of everyone working there. Talented scientists are no longer encouraged to build deep and sustained careers necessary to be world class. Without these people any statement that the Labs are world class is utterly specious. The Labs are doing everything possible to undermine and drive away the very work and expertise that would make them actually world class.

Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.

― Spencer Johnson

Funding for high-risk, high-impact research is gone. Key Laboratory capabilities are falling into increasing disrepair. Everything today is short-term, “customer” focused. If a customer won’t pay for it, the capability is allowed to simply rot. Of course most of the customers aren’t willing to pay for world-class work. They want it on the cheap, and the result is a customer who is happy to siphon off the quality on the cheap without paying to keep it cutting edge. Calling them a customer is an extreme compliment to someone who acts much more like a vampire or leech.

Of course a lot of this is work that our main sponsor (the other euphemistic phrase for our funding source) won’t pay for this sort of work at all. The customers we do have don’t have the capacity to fund good work either. For this reason the basic research is being destroyed hand-in-hand with the Labs that once produced it. The truly scary thing is that these Labs are better than a lot of places that have it even worse. This terrifies me because things are increasingly awful where I’m at. The fact that things are worse elsewhere provides me no comfort.

 But knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better.

― Sheryl Sandberg

imagesThis plays into the general theme of the role of bullshit in today’s society. Telling the truth is the new sin. It’s so much more acceptable to tell the lies you are intended to believe. If someone actually expressed the truth that should be said they would be treated like a pariah. This explains why we pay external reviews to come around every year and tell us that we are still “world class”. Along with the empty platitudes we get a handful of suggestions that can all be ignored because why would a “world class” organization need to improve.

We’re great, everything is fine, nothing to see here, move along.

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Some examples of what World Class really means!