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The Wrong Way To Praise People And Why It Can Backfire

Praising people's inborn talents promotes the idea that they're fixed properties and there's no way to improve.

The Wrong Way To Praise People And Why It Can Backfire
[Photo: RUNSTUDIO/Getty Images]

From our earliest school days, we're told success is all about hard work and persistence. But there may be more to it than that. Dr. Carol S. Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has shown that hard work and persistence may actually be byproducts of a more fundamental characteristic, something she calls a "growth mind-set." And by praising people for working hard and keeping at it, we might be cutting growth short.

Becoming "Brittle In The Face Of Adversity"

Josh Waitzkin is an international chess champ and the subject of the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. "The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability," Waitzkin told Psychology Today in 2008, "we will be brittle in the face of adversity. Looking back, Waitzkin says that losing his first national chess championship was one of the best things that happened to him: It prevented him from believing he was smarter than everyone else and therefore didn't have to work hard.

According to Dweck, there are roughly two kinds of mind-sets when it comes to learning. A "fixed mind-set" convinces us that our talents, abilities, and intelligence are all static properties. Ultimately, that belief tends to sap our motivation to learn and engage, since we see our personal status quo as unalterable.

On the other hand, those with a "growth mind-set" believe they can get better through practice, dedication, and good mentoring. People who have a growth mind-set, says Dweck, "believe everyone can get smarter if they apply themselves. Those are the people who remain vigorously engaged with learning, especially in the face of difficulty."

Minding Your Mind-Set

In a 2011 study, Dweck cites "The Power of Yet" in her TED Talk. Students’ brains were monitored as they worked on a task and made mistakes. Those with fixed mind-sets tended to run from their errors and ignore them, while participants with growth mind-sets explored what went wrong and were more interested in correcting it. They remained curious, which ultimately proved more effective.

Those who aren't very good at confronting their mistakes or rectifying the consequences of slip-ups tend to take things more personally, believing their errors reflect poorly on them. Over time, they can shy away from challenges and buckle when confronted with change. On the other hand, highly successful people are better able to learn and adapt, assimilate feedback, and determine what's needed to get to the next level—even if that's something they don't already possess.

Fortunately, according to Dweck, it's possible to develop a growth mind-set if yours is primarily fixed. And that's where praise comes in.

The Better Way To Praise

Parents, leaders, and other authority figures are taught to praise their children, family, friends, and employees for their abilities: "You're so smart!" We believe that’s a confidence builder, but it can backfire. "Think about it," Waitzkin explains, referring to Dweck's research. "If you tell a kid that she is a winner, which a lot of well-intentioned parents do, then she learns that her winning is because of something ingrained in her. But if we win because we are a winner, then when we lose it must make us a loser."

Changing that fixed belief structure is partly a matter of praising differently. Instead, "process praising"—the sort of feedback that commends effort, focus, strategies, and approaches—like "You worked really hard!" nourish a growth mind-set, not a fixed one. That can push people to continue to try new things even when they mess up. As a result, it fuels and sustains motivation.

A growth mind-set isn't just an asset when it comes to development and success. It can also positively affect personal relationships. Those with fixed mind-sets are more likely to harbor resentments and prolong conflicts, seeing disagreements as reflections on individuals' characters or inborn traits, rather than the products of circumstances that can change or disappear altogether.

This quick checklist can help you make sure the praise you're offering is geared toward growth: 

  1. Base your feedback to others on their process, not their ability.
  2. Teach others how to give growth mind-set feedback and limit praise relating to fixed characteristics.
  3. Offer alternatives to fixed mind-set praise whenever you come across it. Don't hesitate to explain the difference and why it matters.

In her TED Talk, Dweck offers an even simpler solution to changing mind-sets: Whenever you're tempted to say, "I can’t do it," add "yet": "I can’t do it yet!" Sometimes one word is all it takes to help you keep up the good work for the long haul.

Sigrun Gudjonsdottir is founder and CEO of Sigrun GmbH, a lifestyle entrepreneur, online business strategist, and speaker. Follow her on Twitter at @sigruncom.

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