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Want to Lead Extraordinary Employees? Science Says Praise Them Like This (Even Though Most Bosses Do the Opposite)

Stop praising employees for natural talent and focus on recognizing effort instead.

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BY Jeff Haden - 25 Feb 2019

lead extraordinary employees

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Praising employees motivates them to work harder and smarter. Praising employees encourages them to try new things and take smart risks. Praising employees inspires them to become better leaders, better teammates, better... better at everything.

As long as you praise your employees the right way.

Hold that thought.

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, most people tend to have one of two mental perspectives where talent is concerned:

1. 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."

In short: We are what we are.

2. 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."

In short: We can be what we strive to be.

Mindset in Kids

That difference in perspective can be molded by the kind of praise we receive, which typically starts when we're kids.

For example, say you tended to receive praise like this:

  • "Wow, you figured that out so fast. You are so smart!" Or,
  • "Wow, you are amazing. You got an A without studying!"

Sounds great, right?

The problem is that other messages hide inside those statements:

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

The result of those messages tends to be a fixed mindset: We assume we are what we are -- and we can't change who we are. We're smart. Or we're not. We're talented. Or we're not. We're athletic. Or we're not.

And then, when the going inevitably gets tough and we start to struggle, we quickly feel helpless because we assume that what we "are" isn't good enough.

And when we think that... we soon stop trying.

Mindset in Adults

Imagine you only praise employees for achievements. Or you only criticize employees for short-term failures. (Or that you only praise or criticize anyone you know -- friends, family, etc -- for their achievements or failures.)

Do that, and you help create an environment of fixed mindsets.

And then what happens? People start to see mistakes not as lessons learned, not as worthy experiments, not as inevitable steps on the way to success... but simply as failures. They start to see every lack of immediate result as failure.

Which means that in time they lose motivation -- and stop trying.

After all, if I am who I am... effort won't make a difference.

How to Foster a Growth Mindset Workplace

How can you build a team filled with growth-mindset employees?

You can still praise achievement and still offer constructive feedback after failures.

But you must also praise effort and application.

  • "Great job! It's clear you put in a lot of time and effort."
  • "Great work! You beat a tight deadline. Thanks for working so hard to get it done."

The difference? You still praise results... but you praise results based on effort, not on innate talent or skill.

And by praising effort, you create an environment where employees feel anything is possible.

Success is a matter of effort and application -- not innate talent.

The same principle applies to how you encourage your employees. Don't say, "I know you'll get this. You're really smart."

Why? Because "you're really smart" assumes a quality the employee either has or does not have.

Instead say, "I have faith in you. You never give up. I know you'll pull this off."

To consistently improve employee performance, build an environment with a growth mindset. Your team's skills improve.

And so will their willingness to take risks.

When failure is seen as a step on the road to eventual achievement, risks are no longer something to avoid. The occasional failure will just be a part of the process.

Just as effort, application, and growth -- and not natural talent -- will be seen as the true foundations for success.

 

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