The Power and Peril of praising Effort
Posted by Ariel Ceballos on October 17, 2008
Thanks to Meg for forwarding that blog by Seth Godin on Effort and thanks to Vivian for her invitation to attend a Stanford Breakfast Briefing where Carol Dweck talked about her Mindset model. Both things got me thinking. I couldn’t spare the time to properly connect these ideas but here they go anyway:
- The point in Seth’s blog is that for most of us it is only through effort that we can succeed, despite the media constantly bombarding us with information that contradicts that statement. It is only a miniscule minority that can bet on luck and win.
- A while back I read about a study by the University of Exeter(a study that examined outstanding performances in arts and sports) that determined that “opportunities, encouragement, training, motivation, self-confidence and – most of all – practice determine excellence”. Michael Howe (Exeter) went as far as saying that “Talent is a myth; it is hard work that brings success”. He pointed out that despite Mozart being considered a genius, he had to work hard for 16 years before he could produce his first masterpiece (I know, this last bit is debatable for someone who wrote his first symphony at 8!)
- Carol Dweck thinks that if you primarily believe that things are achieved by sheer brilliance and talent then you probably won’t reach your full potential. Because you will be concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. After all, you either have it or not and you surely want to have it. This is what she calls a fixed mindset. On the other end, if you believe that talent and intelligence can be developed, then you will push yourself out of your comfort zone, make mistakes, confront them and learn from them. This is what she calls a growth mindset. A growth mindset is what allows you to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, recognize that effort is the only path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. If you think this is an interesting concept I’d encourage you to read her book (Mindset: the New Psychology of Success). It is short and easy to read.
- According to another good book: The Five dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, people cannot be effective or reach their full potential if they operate in the absence of trust. There is a need of an environment of “Psychological Safety” (back to Dweck) that allows people to make mistakes and learn from them. It is this what in Dweck’s terms makes you smarter. To promote such an environment where people can expose their vulnerabilities it is necessary that managers don’t penalize them for trying out new things despite the occasional failure.
All the above leads to one concept I really liked from Dweck. Her emphasis on what to praise. If you recognize an achievement by saying “Wow, you are really smart!” as opposed to saying “Wow, you must have worked really hard!” you might be pushing people towards a fixed mindset. You are giving them a label of “smart” that they will make a point not to lose. Therefore they won’t take risks and will avoid challenging assignments. Instead, when you praise effort, you are recognizing them for something completely within their immediate control (“Effort is totally available, all the time” – Seth Godin). Her research produced enormous amounts of evidence that confirms this to the point of making it almost indisputable. One of those studies indicated that students with a fixed mindset “are more likely to cheat in an exam” simply because learning is not as important as looking smart. This same group of students went as far as “lying about the results of their tests”.
When praising you need to be specific and realistic. I actually learnt this from a parenting article that explained how it was better to say “I like the way you used colors in your painting” than saying “You are the best artist” because you took time recognize the specifics the praise will be taken more seriously. There is hardly anything more discouraging than being praised by someone who makes it clear in their praise that they don’t understand the nature and magnitude of your accomplishment. Unless the praise comes from Grandma, of course, in which case it is always fine.