Praise for effort, not just performance – The role of mindset in engaging employees

Did you know that praising a child for their intelligence can actually undermine their motivation and subsequent performance? Seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? But a ground-breaking study by psychologist Muller and Dweck in 1998 found just this. In their research they gave 128 students between the ages of 10-12, a series of non-verbal IQ test, consisting of three rounds.

In a nutshell, the study found that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students’ achievement motivation than praise for effort. Those groups given the intelligence praise were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort. After failure, they also displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than those students praised for effort. Finally, children praised for intelligence described it as a fixed trait more than children praised for hard work, who believed it to be subject to improvement.

These findings have been replicated many times over and yet this insight doesn’t seem to have really filtered through to the way we approach how to get the best out people, be it school students or employees. Clearly research such as this has big implications for developing employee engagement, surely a workforce with a growth mind-set outperforms one with a fixed mind-set? And yet I’m not sure how well companies really do this. I’ve certainly worked for companies where you’re only as good as your last piece of work, where it becomes increasingly difficult to take a risk because of this despite a performance management system that said otherwise, on paper only….

How do we praise people in the workplace? Is it for their intelligence, looking smart and delivering or is it for the effort they put in and the learning that takes place?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and also how your company praises your employees.  

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