Want to Boost Employee Performance? Quit Praising Achievement

Last Updated Jul 13, 2011 6:29 PM EDT

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: Are people born with certain talents, or can talent be developed?

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two mental approaches to talent:
  • Fixed mind-set. The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed: We "have" what we were born with. People with a fixed mind-set typically say things like, "I'm just not that smart," or, "Math is not my thing."
  • Growth mind-set. The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort: We are what we work to become. People with a growth mind-set typically say things like, "With a little more time, and I'll get it," or, "That's okay. I'll give it another try."
That difference in perspective can be created by the type of praise we receive, often starting when we were kids. For example, say you are praised like this:
  • "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 mind-set; we start to assume we are what we are.

Then when the going gets tough and we struggle, we feel helpless. What we "are" isn't good enough.

So we stop trying.

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

Why try when trying won't matter?

Instead 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 next time go even better."
  • "Hey, you finished that project quicker this time. You worked really hard. Good job."
  • "Great job -- I can tell you put a lot of time into that."
The difference? You praise results, but 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.

And 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 mind-set. Not only will your team's skills improve, but employees will 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.

Then failure and risk will simply be an expected step in the process of success.

Related: Photo courtesy flickr user Tom Brogan, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.