Don’t praise your people for their smarts – praise them for their work
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Don’t praise your people for their smarts – praise them for their work

“You’re a real smart cookie!” This may sound like a good way to praise one of your people for a job that took thought, imagination and hard work. But it’s not. In fact, it may well do the opposite of what you wanted to achieve, demotivating the person rather than motivating them.

What’s the reason behind this surprising effect?

For the answer, let’s look at a study from Columbia University. The researchers broke participants into three groups, gave them a moderately difficult task, and afterwards told all the groups they succeeded. Group 1 got additional praise for intelligence (e.g., “You must be smart.”) Group 2 got praise for effort (e.g., “You must have worked hard”). Group 3, the control, got no additional praise.

Next, the researchers gave the participants a second, more difficult, task. Those in Group 2, who were praised for their effort, did the best. Those in Group 1, who were praised for their intelligence, did the worst.

Forced to struggle

Why? The researchers concluded that when people are praised for their intelligence – a “fixed” quality they can’t control – they lose confidence when forced to struggle. They perceive the fact that they didn’t succeed right away as evidence that they’re “not smart.” So they don’t enjoy difficult tasks, and they don’t take necessary risks to solve them.

In essence, they’re demotivated rather than motivated.

Praising people for their hard work has the opposite effect. If we praise people for their work ethic, they’re more likely to engage in struggle, eagerly take risks, and enjoy the process of learning from setbacks.

A 3-step model

Praising people is complicated, you may be thinking about now. If you don’t do it right, you can come across as manipulative or insincere.

But don’t conclude that it’s safer to avoid praising people altogether. You still need praise as a recognition tool. The key is to do it right.

Here’s a three-part model for offering praise:

  1. Do your homework
  2. Be specific
  3. “Get” their genius

How it works

Here’s how the model might work in a workplace scenario.

Imagine you’re the leader of a team tasked with creating branding strategies for a new product. After a number of failures, one team member submits a draft that does a great job. Following the praise model, you say:

  • “I reviewed your draft three times and it seemed more on target each time I read it.” (SUBTEXT: I take you seriously and did my homework.)
  • “The tagline is memorable and really captures what the product is about. I liked that you boiled the bullets down to just four items, and they efficiently highlighted the take-home benefits of the product.” (SUBTEXT: I can tell you specifically what pleased me.)
  • “Finally, I can see that a ton of  research went into this draft. I’ve always felt that’s the key to nailing a product strategy.” (SUBTEXT: I “get” what you do to perform so well.)

This is praise that will definitely motivate someone. You’re praising them not for being smart, but for working hard and with sharp focus. You don’t even have to say, “Great job.” The subtext – “I took time to craft this praise, and I get why you’re good” – does that for you.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Why praise can backfire – and how to do it right.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following scholarly article: Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998) Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 33-52.)

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