The Problem With Praise


how to praise employeesAs a training professional, you’ve probably seen plenty of examples of the positive effects of praise. Who doesn’t get a kick out of an employee or student’s face lighting up when they‘re told they’ve done well on a task or test? But according to the latest neuroscience, praise can have a dark sign if incorrectly delivered.

Recently, a pair of posts on the HBR blogs laid out the findings of prominent neuroscientist Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, who presented at the 2011 NeuroLeadership summit in San Francisco. The two posts comment on different aspects of Dweck’s work, but they share a common theme -- praise isn’t always helpful.

Praise and Cheating

The first post by author David Rock lays out work by Dweck that established a connection between praising people for their intelligence and the likelihood that those people will subsequently cheat. Praising people for their effort rather than their innate brains had no such negative effect:

One study primed people with a simple phrase praising their intelligence based on completing a difficult task rather than the effort they put in to achieving the task by saying "You're so smart," versus "You must have worked hard." This simple statement had the "smart" ones less willing to take learning risks in the future, as well protecting their status by lying. In fact, those praised for intelligence were found to be three times more likely to lie about their performance than those praised for effort — even when they knew their names wouldn't show up on the forms, they overstated their scores.

Rock goes on to explain that praising for effort rather than inherent ability creates a “growth mindset” in organizations. “Those of us with a fixed mindset see talent as a static trait, and those a growth mindset see it as a potential that can be developed,” he writes. And a growth mindset can be very valuable, according to Dweck. Managers who were trained to focus on employees' ability to develop, “exhibited more openness to critical feedback, willingness to mentor — and a higher quality of mentoring,” reports Rock.

All these qualities are important for training excellence, so it’s worth asking: Is your praise promoting a growth mindset or encouraging cheating?

How to Praise the Brightest

Besides weighing in on praise in the workplace, Dweck has also done research on praise and children, which HBR covered in a second post by motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D, who worked with Dweck while in grad school. Halvorson explains their work with fifth graders:

Every student got a relatively easy first set of problems to solve and were praised for their performance. Half of them were given praise that emphasized their high ability ("You did really well. You must be really smart!"). The other half were praised instead for their strong effort ("You did really well. You must have worked really hard!").

Next, each student was given a very difficult set of problems.... All were told that this time they had "done a lot worse." Finally, each student was given a third set of easy problems — as easy as the first set had been — in order to see how having a failure experience would affect their performance….

Children who were praised for their "smartness" did roughly 25 percent worse on the final set of problems compared to the first…. Children praised for the effort, on the other hand, performed roughly 25 percent better on the final set of problems compared to the first.

The researchers concluded that those who were praised for their ability believed that their skill level was innate and that there was no point in working harder as there was little they could do to improve. Those praised for effort saw their capacities as more malleable.

While this research is obviously relevant for teachers, the findings can also be of use to any manager or training pro looking to develop their star employees and push them to achieve more. And it might even help the brightest among us.

“If you were a bright kid, it's time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago,” concludes Halvorson.

Are you paying attention to how you praise those you train?

More about employee training and retention on the Mindflash blog.

Sign up for a free trial of Mindflash.

(Image courtesy of Flickr user, CC 2.0)

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for

Start a free trial.

See how your retail business can leverage Mindflash to deliver consistent, up-to-date, on-brand training affordably.