The Psychological Effects of Praise

Carol Dweck is a pioneer in the field of developmental psychology. Her work introduced the concept of fixed vs. growth mindsets. Essentially, a person with a fixed mindset believes that people are born with certain traits and abilities, while someone with a growth mindset believes that these abilities can be learned and mastered through hard work and deliberate practice. A growth mindset encourages a person to routinely push themselves beyond their current limits, while a fixed mindset leaves a person with little motivation to challenge themselves, believing that they’re already fully realized and incapable of significant change.

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Dweck furthered her research by examining how praise and criticism affect people’s mindsets. In a series of studies, fifth grade students were given a set of problems. After working on the problems, the teacher praised some students for their intelligence and others for their effort: “You must be smart at these problems” vs. “You must have worked hard at these problems.”

When the same students were given a more challenging set of problems, the former group—praised for their intelligence—lost confidence when they struggled to solve the problems, while the latter group—praised for their effort—remained confident and eager to find the solutions.

Students who received generic praise— “You must be smart” or “You’re good at math”—began to believe that intelligence and ability were fixed traits. So, when they struggled, they began to doubt their ability or intelligence. “Generic praise implies there is a stable ability that underlies performance; subsequent mistakes reflect on this ability and can therefore be demoralizing”, writes Dweck.

On the other hand, the students who received process praise—such as, “You worked hard at these math problems”—had a better understanding of what they had done to be successful, and therefore had a better roadmap to navigate future challenges. Process praise points to specific characteristics of a person’s work, such as engagement, effort, strategies, improvement, etc. These characteristics have less to do with people themselves than with the actions they’re taking.

Dweck and her team have studied the effects of this generic praise across a range of students and “consistently found the same thing: Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride, followed by a long string of negative consequences.” She goes on to say, “We found that praise for intelligence tended to put students in a fixed mindset, whereas praise for effort tended to put them in a growth mindset.” That growth mindset allowed students to develop “better strategies for correcting their mistakes”.

Why Effective Criticism Relies on Praise

While the right type of praise can foster a growth-oriented attitude, how does criticism affect the psyche? Especially when you consider that more respondents in a Harvard Business Review survey said they would actually prefer corrective feedback (57%) over praise/recognition (43%).

57% of employees would actually prefer corrective feedback over praise. Click To Tweet

In that same HBR survey, 72% of respondents said “they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback”, and 92% of respondents agreed that “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” That stipulation— “if delivered appropriately”—is very important.

Dweck’s research shows us that criticism and praise actually share a strong connection and can coexist effectively within a manager/coach/teacher’s feedback. Consider that regular process praise—for example, “You worked hard on this project”—fosters a growth mindset and makes a person more confident in the face of failure/obstacles, whereas generic praise— “You’re great at closing sales”—can implode confidence when struggles arise or things don’t go according to plan.

In that same survey, respondents who ranked in the top 10% for confidence level also showed the highest preference for receiving negative feedback. Those who showed a lack of confidence—ranking in the bottom 10%—preferred to avoid negative feedback.

As we saw earlier, Dweck’s studies showed that confidence level is linked to a growth mindset—the type of mindset that specific, process praise can help to develop. Those with a fixed mindset (probably falling in the bottom 10% for confidence) were more likely to avoid criticism, as it could shake their belief in their own intelligence/abilities.

That’s why it’s so important that managers provide regular feedback and coaching, rooted in process praise, to their employees. It not only helps employees improve, but it can also build employees’ confidence and make them better equipped to handle future challenges. By receiving frequent praise, employees develop greater trust in their manager and are more open to corrective feedback. They recognize that the manager is familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, is personally invested in their growth, and has their best interests at heart.

Regular feedback and coaching helps improve your employees' performance and confidence. Click To Tweet

Praise on Digital Platforms

In Harvard Business Review, author Shawn Achor details his studies on how public recognition and feedback on digital platforms affect employee performance. One case study Achor covers is JetBlue, which has consistently been ranked by J.D. Power as the highest in customer satisfaction among low-cost airlines. The company uses a “social peer-to-peer recognition” program that allows employees to recognize their colleagues’ great work on an internal newsfeed that’s viewable by the entire company.  

Employees who receive recognition are given points that they can spend on a rewards program. The company’s data revealed that for every 10% increase in recognition, JetBlue experienced a 3% increase in retention and 2% increase in engagement. Those employees were also twice as likely to be in the top 10% of customer compliments.

Achor writes that these studies “suggest that effective digital recognition programs can help scale organic praise, have a high ROI, and lead to significantly higher levels of employee performance and engagement, as well as increased customer loyalty”.

Dr. Jooa Julia Lee and her colleagues in a Harvard study on praise and problem-solving said it best, “Most societies and organizations have not created vehicles for reminding people who they are when they are at their best, even though theory suggests that this information can inspire them to achieve more of their potential. By activating people’s best self-concepts and highlighting examples of them making extraordinary contributions, we found positive changes in their physiology, creative problem solving, performance under pressure, and social relationships, particularly when the stories were reflected back to them by others.”

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