Why You Should Stop Over-Praising Your Team

Last Updated Sep 15, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

I recently went to North Carolina, where I joined a high tech company for its executive retreat. The first day was spent discussing the Myers-Briggs assessments of the senior leaders. Everyone loved this; people always love learning more about themselves and others. There were some fun team exercises, a lot of laughter and many hugs. This was - is - a strong team, full of commitment and energy. "All we really need," one of the Vice Presidents said, "is more self-belief!"

The next day we undertook a strategic review. The company has big goals and lots of plans. But how were they going to achieve those goals? Largely through spending more, working harder and lots of cheerleading.

This executive retreat reminded me of the failure of the self-esteem movement. This held that if you praise kids a lot and give them all prizes for everything ("everyone's a winner"), you will make them more capable. But while it is true that expectations influence outcomes, it is not true that saying everyone's a winner makes it true. In fact - it may have just the opposite effect.

When Praise Backfires
As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's landmark research showed, if kids believe that they are smart, then when the work gets hard, they give up. Not being able to do something instantly makes them feel stupid and hopeless, so they quit. On the other hand, if you praise qualities and actions - not self-image - kids will persist with difficult tasks and achieve more.

Having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal for no other reason than because Jim Collins likes them, and lots of self-belief because it feels good, is not a strategy; it's a recipe for disaster. When the cheerleading doesn't work and the goals prove elusive (or just plain stupid), the company risks being left with a management team that is confused, disheartened and demoralized.
Confidence Comes from Achievement
What should the company do instead? Have a real strategy - a way of connecting with external trends and partners that enables the team to do more with less. Find an escalator, a rising tide or business collaborators whose contribution allows you both to do more together than you could do alone. Or develop complimentary/contingent strategies (Apple's audacious retail strategy coupled with the development of the iPod) that lift each other.

And when that succeeds, remember: it wasn't you, it was the strategic thinking that made you a winner. Or as one sports psychologist put it: Confidence is an outcome.


Photo courtesy of Flickr user Klearchos Kapoutsis
Further Reading

How to Wreck Morale
Do Tough Decisions Require Trade Offs?
Steve Jobs's Leadership Legacy
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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