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Last week we explored the importance of praise and why it can be difficult for leaders to give it. This week we take a look at one of the key responsibilities of a leader: giving praise and recognition; focusing on praising effort rather than outcome.
Much of the research around giving praise focuses on children, this is in part because praise is often associated with children. By the age of just 5, an individual will have already received most of the praise they will receive throughout their entire lifetime. From age 5 onwards it’s all downhill, as we can expect the average ratio of negative to positive comments that we receive to be around 14:1.
Carol S. Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success discusses the results of a number of experiments in which a group of teenagers were praised either for their effort, or for their ability and she found some startling results, which provide some useful guidelines for leaders when it comes to praising their teams.
When a group of teenagers were tested on a fairly difficult set of maths tasks, some of them were praised on their actual achievements (ability), whilst the others were praised on the effort they put in. Results at this stage showed that both groups had enjoyed the tasks. However, researchers then told the two groups that they would be completing a more difficult set of tasks. 90% of the children praised for their effort wanted the new, challenging task that they could learn from, whilst those praised for their ability rejected the new task, not wanting to risk a flaw in their previous achievements.
On completion of the more difficult task, researchers found that the children praised for their ability not only performed worse than the children who were praised for their effort, but they actually performed worse than their own initial performance. In addition, 40% of the ability children when asked later on for their scores lied about it by inflating their actual score.
Despite both groups having been equal before the experiment began, after praise was given, their results differed significantly. But why would this be the case? If their initial achievements were the same and only the way in which they were praised differed, what was it about the type of praise received that caused the effort children to excel, whilst the ability children’s performances plummeted?
Essentially the children were learning that success equals smartness whilst failure equals stupidity. In an attempt to not be seen as ‘stupid’, the ability children would do whatever they needed to do to prevent failure. These children felt a genuine burden and expectation to perform at a certain level, and the weight of this burden actually caused the children to perform more poorly and meant that they avoided new and more challenging tasks.
So, how can we relate this to team performance?
A team whose members are praised only for their results are likely to struggle when the going gets tough. Such a team are likely to be lacking in innovation and creativity, require constant reassurance, they are less likely to see a difficult, challenging problem or task through to the end and they will find even constructive criticism extremely hard to take. In contrast, teams whose members are praised for their efforts, rather than their outcomes are more likely to be successful. These teams welcome new challenges and opportunities for learning, they are not afraid to fail and therefore feel more confident in exploring new ideas.
In today’s constantly changing economy we need teams who are adaptable and innovative, who are concerned more with self-improvement than any threat to their image and who can pick themselves up after a failure and learn from it.
Whether you choose to rethink your entire Risk and Reward structure is down to you, but one clear message that comes from this research is that praising effort is invaluable to team performance. However difficult you find it, you need to accept that it is one of the key responsibilities of a leader, so acknowledge it’s importance and get praising your team’s efforts.
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