Praise can be incredibly motivating. Praise can be extremely encouraging. Praise can be hugely inspiring.

If you do it the right way. Take the wrong approach, and praising an employee can actually have the opposite effect.

The difference lies in whether you assume skill is based on innate ability...or on hard work and effort.

Put another way, are people simply born with special talent, or can incredible talent be developed? (I think talent can definitely be developed, and so should you.)

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 quickly--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 ever don't figure things out quickly...then I must not be very smart."
  • "If I do ever have to study...then I must not be amazing."

The result can be that you adopt a fixed mindset: You assume you are what you are. Then, when the going gets struggle and feel helpless because you think what you "are" isn't good enough.

And when you think you aren't good enough--and never will be--you stop trying.

When you praise employees only for their achievements--or criticize employees for their short-term failures--you help create a fixed mindset environment. In time, employees come to see every mistake as a failure. They see a lack of immediate results as 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 also praise effort and application.

  • "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."
  • "That didn't go as well as we hoped...but all the work you put in is definitely paying off. Let's see what we can do to make things turn out even better next time."

That way you still praise (or critique) results--but you praise results that are based on the premise of effort, not on an assumption of innate talent or skill. By praising effort, you help create an environment where employees feel anything is possible--as long as they keep working to improve.

The same principle applies to how you encourage employees. Don't say, "You're really smart. I know you'll get this." While that sounds complimentary (and it is), "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."

The best way to consistently improve employee performance is to create and foster a growth mindset. Not only will your team's skills improve, your employees will also be more willing to take more risks.

When failure is seen as just 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 on the way to inevitable success.