Why you should stop praising employees only for achievement

Applauding workers for their effort, not their innate skill, improves performance and cultivates a more inspiring atmosphere, this author says. Do you agree?

Praise motivates, encourages and inspires.


Depending on your approach, praising an employee can actually have the opposite effect. The difference lies in whether we assume skill is based on innate ability or hard work.

Put another way, are people born with certain talents, or can they develop them? (I think they can definitely develop talent, but that’s just me.)

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two approaches:

1. Fixed mindset: This is the belief that intelligence, ability and skill are innate and relatively fixed-we have what we were born with. People with fixed mindsets typically say things like, “I’m just not that smart” or, “Math isn’t my thing.”

2. Growth mindset: This is the belief that one can develop intelligence, ability and skill through effort-we are what we work to become. People with growth mindsets typically say things like, “With a little more time, I’ll get it” or, “That’s OK. I’ll try again.”

The kind of praise we receive can mold these perspectives, and often that starts when we’re kids. For example, say you were praised in one of these ways:

  • “Wow, you figured that out quickly. You’re so smart!”
  • “Wow, you’re amazing. You got an A without even cracking a book!”

That praise sounds great, right? The problem is that inferred messages lurk within those statements:

  • “If I don’t figure things out quickly, then I must not be very smart.”
  • “If I do have to study, then I must not be amazing.”

A fixed mindset can result. Then, when we struggle, we feel helpless because we think we aren’t good enough.

When we think we aren’t good enough, we stop trying.

When you praise employees only for achievements—or criticize employees for short-term failures—you create a fixed mindset environment. In time, employees see every mistake and a lack of immediate results as failure. In time, they can lose motivation and even stop trying.

Fortunately there’s another way. Focus on praising effort and application:

  • “That didn’t go perfectly, but you’re on the right track. Let’s see what we can do to make it even better next time.”
  • “You finished that project much more quickly this time. You must have worked really hard.”
  • “Great job! I can tell you put a lot of time into that.”

You’re still praising results, but you’re praising results that are based on effort—not skill. By praising effort, you create an environment where employees feel that anything is possible.

The same principle applies to encouragement. Don’t say, “I know you’ll get this, because you’re really smart.” Though that is complimentary, it assumes an innate quality that the employee might or might not have.

Instead, say: “I have faith in you. You’re a hard worker. I’ve never seen you give up. I know you’ll get this.”

To consistently improve employee performance, create an environment with a growth mindset. Not only will your team’s skills improve, but your employees will be more willing to take risks. When people see failure as a step on the road to achievement, risks are no longer something to avoid. Risk and occasional failure will simply be an expected step on the way to success.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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