How Not to Praise Your Team


Many of us believe that the more we affirm the abilities of others, the more likely they will be to achieve success. In fact, more than 85% of parents polled as part of a research project believed that praising their child's ability is necessary to make them feel smart. Yet praising a person’s success and innate talents may actually limit their ability to be successful in the future according to a series of studies conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck.

In one study, fifth graders were given four minutes to complete a series of puzzles. Researchers then gave each student their score and praised them. Some were praised for their abilities, "You must be smart at these problems!" Others were praised for their effort, "You must have worked hard at these problems!"

Next, students were asked to choose between different types of puzzles. Three types of puzzles were focused on showcasing their ability to perform, while the fourth was focused on problems where the student could learn new skills, but not necessarily do as well. Of those praised for their effort, more than 90% chose the harder puzzle. Of those praised for their achievements, two-thirds chose a puzzle where they would likely perform well.

Students then worked on a puzzle so difficult that everyone would do poorly. The students initially commended for their abilities and those praised for their effort responded to the failure quiet differently. Those praised for their hard work were willing to persist longer, enjoyed the difficult puzzle more, and scored better than those that were initially praised for their talents.

Why do people who are praised for their talent subsequently achieve less than those praised for their efforts? When we praise people by linking their success to their abilities, we may be encouraging them to rely on their talents versus hard work. They may also seek less challenging opportunities in the future to increase their chances for success. In addition, people who are praised for their abilities also tend to be distracted by the performance of others instead of being focused on improving their skills.

When people are praised for their effort, they tend to seek opportunities where they will be challenged. They seek opportunities to improve themselves. And they tend to perform at a higher level than those that are praised for their abilities.

Next time you give positive feedback to a co-worker or a family member, remember to focus on effort, not talent.

For example, if a team finishes a project on time and on budget try saying something like, "I appreciate how everyone stayed focused and didn't give up when things were difficult." Or praise a child who does well in school by saying, "I'm really proud of how hard you studied in your classes; even when you were feeling sick."