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All this praise turning to failure.jpg

I want to go over a dynamite article I just read that has some great implications for how we work in teams and how we recognize the work of those around us.

I have to say at the outset that I’m a little late to this party as this article is over 15 years old.  But this is nothing new for me – I’m often like the guy in the office trying to get everyone to listen to this hot, brand-new band he discovered called “Coldplay.” (I’m telling you all, these guys are gonna’ make it big one day!”)  So, if you’ve already heard this, just nod politely and leave me a comment about what I should read next down in the comment section.


The article is called “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance” and you can find it here from Stanford University.  In it, Drs. Dweck and Mueller trace six different studies performed on children related to how different forms of praise for task completion and accomplishment affected future performance.  Specifically, they were looking at forms of recognition and praise for effort versus recognition and praise for intrinsic qualities.


Here’s an example: In classroom A, 30 students complete a word puzzle and, upon completion, are told by the teacher “Well done! It looks like you really worked hard at that.”  In classroom B, a different set of 30 students complete the same task. But, upon completion, they are told “Well done! You are so smart!”   See the difference there?  In one group effort is recognized, while in the other, what we might call “traits” or “intrinsic qualities” are recognized as being responsible for success.


And that difference created some very interesting comparisons between the two groups:

  1. Students who had been praised for “innate qualities” viewed intelligence accomplishment as basically static –  something you either have or you don’t.
  2. Students who had success tied to personal traits were more likely to fail in future tasks when they encountered difficulty (because they believed success or failure was tied to innate qualities that they had no control over).
  3. Students who were praised for effort showed greater resilience in the face of obstacles to accomplishment.
  4. Because they believed success and failure said something about their innate identity, the “innate qualities” group was more likely to lie in the future when talking aabout their actual accomplishments.

Now, as you read this, you might be thinking “That’s fine for kids, but I’m an adult – does this apply to me?”  I would say that it emphatically does (as does the Harvard Business Review) and have a couple key thoughts for how we can start using this in our work and world:

  1. Pay attention to what you praise and hold up as valuable.  Because what we promote will become what we aim for.  This is especially true if you are in leadership: what you hold up as valuable will shape the nature of work for your team and it is the barometer for what you actually believe about effort, success and accomplishment.
  2. Answer this question: “How is my world (at home or at work) structured to facilitate and promote effort from me and my team?”  If you can’t answer this question, then take some time alone or with a colleague or advisor (however you think best) to think and strategize.
  3. Don’t swing the pendulum too far ignore intrinsic qualities (whether someone is really “bright” or “quick” or “good with clients”).  The people on your team have intrinsic qualities; just like you.  And, just like you, they wouldn’t mind if they were noticed.  We just need to recognize that there’s more to accomplishment and excellence than intrinsic qualities.

Ok, that’s it for me today.  I’m off to go listen to this new artist I just discovered called U2.  We’ll see about them.  I mean, they’re no Coldplay.