David Marquet - Intent Based Leadership: Create Leaders at Every Level

Weekly Nudge – Praise Behavior, Not Ability

Praise the behavior you want repeated.

Not all praise has the same effect on people. During a study by Carol Dweck on Brooklyn fifth-graders, those that were praised for their behavior – “you must have worked hard,” were more likely to engage in challenging tasks than those who were praised for their ability – “you must be smart.”

It turns out that when you praise people for a characteristic which becomes part of our identity and yet seems fixed, they tend to shy away from activities they might fail at that would disprove their belief.

Words have powerful effects on people and here’s another example also from Dr. Dweck’s work:

Your child actively participates in gymnastics and had a competition this past week. She did not win and has come home dejected.

What would you say? ​

  1. “I thought you were the best.”
  2.  “You were robbed.”
  3.  “It wasn’t that important anyway.”
  4. “You’re very talented and will surely win next time.”
  5.  “You weren’t the best this time and need to work harder if you want to win.”

Here’s the analysis of the other answers.

  1. “I thought you were the best.” Doesn’t matter, you are not a gymnastics judge.
  2. “You were robbed.” Embraces a victimhood mentality.
  3.  “It wasn’t that important anyway.” Diminishes something that she thinks is important.
  4. “You’re very talented and will surely win next time.” Praises a fixed characteristic and promises an outcome which cannot be guaranteed.
  5. “You weren’t the best this time and need to work harder if you want to win.” Tells the truth and focuses on something within our control.

The best response is #5.

Does that feel harsh? This is hard for many people, including myself, because it does not feel like the nice thing to say. When we want to make it safe for our people, that doesn’t mean living in a fantasy world. The truth might initially feel tough but it helps people get better. Remember when having conversations like these – come from a mindset of empathy.

If you want to learn to learn more, here’s a 3’25” video by Carol Dweck describing their studies in more detail.

Learn More – Read, Turn the Ship Around!


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