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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.

Of course concepts that are fully applicable to parenting are not as easily applicable to management.  Primarily because when it refers to your children, their reaching their full potential is possibly the most important goal in your life.  While as a manager, ensuring your employees reach their full potential is one very important goal in your job (along with other, perhaps more tangible and immediate things like productivity, revenue, deadlines, you name it).  It then becomes a harder balancing act to recognize and reward effort without sending the wrong message and holding people to double standards.
But if you look at the long run, a small loss in productivity today may very well be a reasonable price to change a mindset.

5 Responses to “The Power and Peril of praising Effort”

  1. Rebecca Emerson said

    Excellent blog. A recent issue of ODE Magazine also covered this topic in “In Praise of Failure”.

  2. Meg Bear said

    Awesome post Ariel. I have a lot of respect for the concepts I’ve heard about the Mindset model but I have to say it makes me more then a little neurotic as a parent now. Did I accidentally say “smart”, oops strike that!

  3. […] I stared at this sign while I got my ass kicked jumping rope, not only establishing how out of shape I am but also confirming that I have absolutely no rhythm. But I’m learning. And, I’m going back. I’ve got a growth mindset. […]

  4. […] changes a person’s happiness level – no! just like the growth versus fixed mindset, people can actually grow happier if they set their mind to it. The point is that we should work […]

  5. […]  Ultimately, I believe this kind of thinking will be just as important as, say, developing a growth mindset – in terms of building successful people and organizations in the […]

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