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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Reasons to Praise Employees' Effort, Not Talent

As a manager, have you ever told any of your direct reports, “You’re so good at presenting,” “You’re a natural with clients,” or “You have a gift for noticing details?” Before you pat yourself on the back for being a manager who gives positive feedback, you might want to read up on Carol S. Dweck’s research.

In an article for Scientific American, Dweck states:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

While this article focuses on raising children well, managers can glean similar insights from the findings. Dweck’s research suggests that praising effort rather than innate ability helps people develop a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset, which is equally positive in adults as it is in kids. People with a growth mindset believe that their skills and abilities can be developed through perseverance and hard work; whereas those with a fixed mindset think their abilities are determined mostly by their natural talent or intelligence.

Encouraging a growth mindset has multiple benefits.

1. It Helps Employees Persevere After Setbacks

Complimenting the effort employees make also helps them overcome failures. People with a growth mindset attribute failure to a lack of effort, not ability. Righting a wrong only requires more hard work. Or, as Dweck explains:

Attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame… a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

2. It Encourages the Acknowledgement of Errors

Getting rid of a fixed mindset also makes it easier for people to admit their mistakes. The ways errors are perceived is changed. A mistake isn’t an attack on your ego, it’s an opportunity to learn. As Dweck puts it:

A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less wiling to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships.

3. It Improves Team Communication

Unsurprisingly, those with a fixed mindset are less open to feedback than people with a growth mindset. Making a point to compliment effort and encouraging more of a growth mindset means your team members will ultimately be more open to getting guidance from you.

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice.

(Related: Giving Constructive Criticism That Won’t Make Anyone Cringe)

4. It Inspires People to Tackle Challenges

Employees with a fixed mindset seek easy assignments, because they’re afraid of failure—after all, failure would put into question their abilities. But employees with a growth mindset want the challenging assignments—it gives them an opportunity to shine. As Dweck’s research shows:

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort.

So, next time you see your employees do good work, think twice before complimenting their talent, and instead focus your energy on how hard they’re working or the effort they’ve put in. It’ll help you be an inspiring manager and help them be more open to learning.

Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo.