This is a theme Carol Dweck explored a number of years ago as her notions of Fixed and Growth mindsets began to gain notoriety. Dweck wanted to look at various forms of praise and the effect they had on school students and their personal expectations. Her findings were enormously significant and offer important lessons for every leader and educator today.
As part of her experiment, Dweck divided a large sample group of students into two cohorts. Each cohort was given 10 fairly difficult problems from an IQ test. After they had attempted each problem set, students in the first group were given what was termed ‘Ability Praise’, for example, ‘Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.’ In comparison, the students in the second group were given ‘Effort Praise’, including phrases such as, ‘Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.’
Over a relatively short period of time, those in the ‘Ability Praise’ group began to clearly demonstrate a Fixed Mindset and, when given a choice, would opt not to do a challenging new set of problems – they essentially avoided anything that might expose weaknesses or call their talent into question. As the difficulty increased, this group lost confidence and concluded they weren’t smart after all – if initial success had meant they were intelligent, a lack of success meant they were deficient.
In contrast, 90 per cent of students in the ‘Effort Praise’ group requested harder problems that they could learn from. They had quickly got the message that their success was not the result of some special gift but because they’d put in the effort required to succeed. When they did not succeed, they looked for new strategies, rather than viewing the failure as a reflection on their intellect.
Dweck and her research team then gave both student groups a set of easy problems and began to examine the effect of the two types of praise on the students’ performance. They were stunned by the results. Following their encounter with the hard set of problems, the ‘Ability Praise’ students’ performance had dropped as quickly as their confidence had. In contrast, the performance of the ‘Effort Praise’ students kept gradually increasing – they had used the hard problems to sharpen their skills.
Reflecting on the findings of this study, Dweck observed: ‘By telling students they were smart, in the end we made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. We certainly weren’t aiming for this when we put positive labels like ‘gifted’, ‘talented’, or ‘brilliant’ on (the students).’
This concept applies equally to the business world. Often the encouragement which we intend to compel further progress actually serves to create a mindset that hinders it.
Reflecting on the finding of this and other similar studies, Angela Duckworth in her book ‘Grit’ lists some common examples of both ‘Ability’ and ‘Effort’ praise. Phrases like, ‘You’re a natural,’ and, ‘Maybe this just isn’t your thing,’ are often used examples of ability feedback which fosters a fixed mindset.
In contrast, effort feedback that fosters a growth mindset may include phrases like, ‘Great job? What’s one thing you could have done better?’ ‘Let’s work together to figure out what you could do differently next time,’ and, ‘This is hard – don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.’
Having been made aware of this in the research process for this book, it has struck me how often I catch myself using Ability Praise even with my own son. The reality is that our well- intentioned efforts to affirm skill and accomplishment can backfire if we don’t balance it with affirmation of effort.
While giving Effort Praise is powerful and important, it’s important to highlight the three common mistakes in giving effort praise to team members and students. These include:
- Praising only the effort and not the progress. Effort Praise is not simply acknowledging that a student has applied themselves but making the explicit connection between effort and progress. There is no point encouraging a student to keep doing something that isn’t working. If effort isn’t leading to results, the teacher’s role is not to merely applaud the effort but work with the student to find new strategies.
- Confusing activity with application. While a student may have made an effort, were they actually trying hard? Effort is not universal and what represents significant effort for one student may be coasting for another. The praise or affirmation must be proportionate to the degree of application and must not simply to make a young person feel better.
- Using effort as a consolation prize. Effort cannot be merely seen as a reward in itself. There’s no point saying to a student, ‘Oh well, you didn’t succeed, at least you tried’ and stopping there. Again, the teacher’s role is to help the student figure out what’s not working and devise strategies to get better results from their efforts in future.
When affirming and encouraging our students and teams, we must keep in mind the kind of language we use. I would encourage you to reflect on your go-to phrases of encouragement. Are they praising the ability or the effort? Are the labelling or encouraging? Are they building the kind of worker who will be able to withstand failure and persevere through challenges – are they building grit?
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.
 Dweck, C. 2006, Mindset, Random House, New York, p. 71-74.
 Duckworth, A. 2017, Grit, Vermilion, London, p. 182.
 Dweck, C. 2006, Mindset, Random House, New York, pp. 215, 216.
 Seligman, M. 2007, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, pp. 287, 288.