22 Nov The Power of Praise – How to Cultivate Continuous Improvement and Go Beyond Your Inherent Abilities
I was born in 1971, right at the beginning of the ‘self-esteem movement’.
Many parenting experts said that raising well-adjusted children is all about self-esteem. They said that kids should hear about their specialness and high ability to reach their potential. My parents and older sisters fell in line and I was often told just how special I was.
Growing up, I heard a steady stream of compliments: I was smart, and handsome, and able to do anything I wanted. This was not only from my family, but from teachers, church members, and the community at large.
I basked in and thrived on that approval (it may be no surprise that I now earn my living standing in front of groups of people who clap and cheer for me.)
But I’m now learning that there is a downside to all that positive support. While my family (and community) had only the best intentions, it turns out that they were giving a specific type of praise – person praise. They were praising me for my inherent abilities and qualities.
“You are smart.”
“You are strong.”
“You are clever.”
What the self-esteem movement didn’t realize is that praising a child for their inherent abilities tends to instill a Fixed Mindset.
A Quick Overview of Mindset
Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University discovered that there are two basic ways to think about ability; the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
The Fixed mindset is based on the belief that our abilities are limited. People with a fixed mindset believe that we each have a set amount of capacity in any given area and there’s nothing we can do to improve beyond the limits of our inborn abilities. You know when you’re dealing with someone in the fixed mindset when you hear them say things like:
- I’m not good at math.
- I’m a terrible athlete.
- I’ve always been great at spelling.
Research now shows that we are indeed capable of learning new skills and improving existing ones. And we don’t need loads of scientific data to see this is true (but there is LOADS out there.)
If you’ve ever played a sport, learned a craft or played a new game as an adult, you know that our brains are very nimble and that it is possible to get better.
And that brings us to the Growth mindset.
Growth mindset is the belief that ability, intelligence, and mastery come with constant learning and effort.
Inborn talent helps, but will only get you so far. People in a growth mindset understand that success comes from challenging yourself, learning and practicing skills everyday. You know when you’re dealing with someone in the growth mindset when you hear them say things like:
- I’ve worked hard to get good at this.
- I love a challenge.
- I might not be good at this now, but I can improve.
You could say that the difference between fixed and growth mindset comes down to one word – yet.
The fixed mindset says, “I’m not good at this.”
The growth mindset says, “I’m not good at this yet.”
Let me be clear. Mindset is not a black and white issue. A person can be in either a growth or a fixed mindset in different areas and those beliefs might change day to day. I might believe that I can learn to be good at woodworking, while simultaneously believing that ‘I’m just no good at drawing’.
Also, remember that mindset is a belief. There is a lot of evidence to show the fact that people can improve performance, ability and intelligence. But if you are in a fixed mindset, your disbelief will hold you back.
How Praise Influences Mindset
Current research seems to indicate that much of our mindset is formed early in life. We often adopt our mindset based on how we are praised and criticized. This is also true once we’re adults.
According to Dr. Dweck, there are three types of praise/criticism. It comes down to what you’re praising; the person, the outcome or the process.
Person praise is directed at who the person is and their inherent abilities:
- “You are so smart!”
- “You are great at math.”
- “You are such a good salesperson!”
While praising talent will make a person happy and proud, those positive feelings will only last for a short while. In each case, the praise is focused on the person. This sends a clear message that their success is directly linked to their inherent abilities. Notice the word, “are” in each of the examples; “you are so smart”, “you are great at math.” The implication is that either you’re born with it or not. That leads to a fixed mindset.
Outcome praise (also known as product praise) is directed at the results of the person’s inherent abilities:
- “That’s a great drawing”
- “You got the right answer.”
- “Good job!”
Like person praise, outcome praise does feel good. But that good feeling only comes when the outcome is good. There’s no emphasis on getting better. Either you did good work or you failed. Again, this leads to a fixed mindset.
Process praise is all about how the person dealt with a challenge:
- “I like how you worked so hard.”
- “You kept trying, even when it wasn’t easy.”
- “You used good strategies.”
See the difference?
Process praise puts the focus on the person’s effort and approach to the problem, not their abilities or outcomes.
This type of praise teaches that ability comes from effort and it is possible to improve. That naturally fosters a growth mindset where the person believes that they are not limited in their abilities.
It’s important to note that it’s not just praise that can be classified this way; criticism can also be directed at a person, the outcome or their process:
- Person criticism – “You’re just not good at math.”
- Outcome criticism – “That’s a poor example of perspective drawing.”
- Process criticism – “You seemed to give up too soon.”
How To Apply Process Praise
Some critics have mistakenly assumed that process praise is all about praising effort, with no regard to results. That’s simply not the case. It’s not enough to work hard. Hard work without improvement isn’t enough.
You can praise various aspects of the process. In fact, there are a number of areas to apply process praise:
- Effort – “You really had to apply yourself and it paid off.”
- Using good strategies – “I like how you learned from your mistakes.”
- Sticking at hard things – “You were really persistent.”
- Making progress/improving over time – “Your hard work is paying off and you’re getting better.”
- Focusing on the task – “I like the way you concentrated until you finished.”
By spreading the praise beyond hard work, you can shed light on various areas of process improvement.
Less praise, more questions and observations
Praise can be a powerful motivator, but it’s not the only way to improve performance. Along with a bit of praise, practice making observations and asking more questions about the process.
- “Tell me how you succeeded.”
- “How did you overcome that problem?”
- “How did you prepare to succeed?”
- “I noticed you got stuck in the middle, but then kept chugging along.”
- “I see that you made some mistakes along the way. How did you get past them?”
As good as praise can feel, it doesn’t always lead to increased learning. By asking questions about how a person got their results, you can help them learn how they do their best work.
We can apply these strategies to ourselves too
Our minds are constantly chattering away at ourselves. If you start to focus your attention on the little voice in your head, you’ll start to hear the fixed (or growth) mindset.
“Why am I so bad at this?”
“How could I have been so stupid?”
“Man oh man, I’m really great at this!”
Through a lifetime of education, friendships and work, that inner voice has been trained in how it praises and criticizes you.
So, start to monitor your self-talk. If you hear that little voice in your head praising you as person or for your outcomes, realize that it’s likely enforcing a fixed mindset. If that works for you, so be it. No one is saying that fixed mindset is an inherently bad thing.
But if you want to shift to a growth mindset, start to change the way you praise and criticize yourself. Be on the lookout for the good parts of your process.
Pat yourself on the back, not for who you are or what you did, but how you did it. You’ll still get the feel good benefits of praise, while building your Growth Mindset at the same time.
For more on Mindset, be sure to check out last week’s article, How Leaders Can Develop Growth Mindset in Themselves and Others.