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To Boost Employee Performance, Praise Effort--Not Achievement

Believe it or not, sometimes, "Wow, you're brilliant!" is the wrong thing to say.
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Praise motivates. Praise encourages. Praise inspires.

Sometimes.

Depending on the approach you take, praising an employee can actually have the opposite effect. The difference lies in whether we assume skill is based on innate ability or on hard work and effort.

Put another way, are people born with certain talents, or can talent be developed? (I think talent can definitely be developed, but that's just me.)

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two mental approaches to talent:

Fixed mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed--we "have" what we were born with. People with a fixed mindset typically say things like "I'm just not that smart" or "Math is not my thing."

Growth mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort--we are what we work to become. People with a growth mindset typically say things like "With a little more time, I'll get it" or "That's OK. I'll give it another try."

That difference in perspective can be molded by the kind of praise we receive, and that often starts when we're kids. For example, say you are praised in one of these ways:

  • "Wow, you figured that out so fast--you are so smart!"
  • "Wow, you are amazing--you got an A without even cracking a book!"

Sounds great, right? The problem is that other messages are lurking within those statements:

  • "If I don't figure things out fast, I must not be very smart."
  • "If I do have to study, I'm not amazing."

The result can be a fixed mindset. We start to assume we are what we are. Then, when the going gets tough and we struggle, we feel helpless because we think what we "are" isn't good enough.

And when we think that, we stop trying.

When you praise employees only for achievements--or criticize employees for short-term failures--you help create a fixed mindset environment. In time, employees see every mistake as a failure. They see a lack of immediate results as a failure. In time, they can lose motivation and even stop trying.

After all, why try when trying won't matter?

Fortunately, there's another way: Make sure you focus on praising effort and application, too:

  • "That didn't go perfectly, but you're definitely on the right track. Let's see what we can do to make it go even better next time."
  • "Hey, you finished that project much more quickly this time. You must have worked really hard."
  • "Great job! I can tell you put a lot of time into that."

The difference? You still praise results, but you praise results that are based on the premise of effort and not on an assumption of innate talent or skill. By praising effort, you help create an environment where employees feel anything is possible.

The same principle applies to how you encourage employees. Don't say, "I know you'll get this; you're really smart." "You're really smart" assumes an innate quality the employee either has or does not have.

Instead, say, "I have faith in you. You're a hard worker. I've never seen you give up. I know you'll get this."

To consistently improve employee performance, build a work environment with a growth mindset. Not only will your team's skills improve, but your employees will also be more willing to take more risks.

When failure is seen as a step on the road to eventual achievement, risks are no longer something to avoid.

Risk, and occasional failure, will simply be an expected step along the way toward success.

Last updated: May 21, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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