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Don’t Praise the Greatness or Intelligence of your Children, Students, or Employees

My Thoughts on Praising Children, Students, and Employees

Why praising the greatness or intelligence of your children, students, or employees might actually lower their chances for success.

Four fellow students and I  are participating right now in a case competition for Accenture Germany. It is part of our studies where the university randomly appointed several teams. Those teams have to compete against other teams from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

We are very lucky that our team spirit worked out amazing – which is probably usually rather rare when teams are randomly selected. However, this great and smart team, combined with a great team spirit and a lot of hard work allowed us to become the winning team of our university and – today – locally in our country North-Rhine Westphalia.

Don’t Praise Greatness

During the last weeks, I discovered that praising students or teams is not always good, here is why:

When we won the first round in our university, there were several members of the jury – some professors and some consultants from Accenture. We delivered a solid presentation and a good demo. When they announced, that we won the first place I was able to discover a unique human behavioral flaw.

Ralf Weber – a very nice and competent Accenture consultant – wanted to play a trick on us. While he announced that our team was the winner from all six university teams, he simultaneously underlined that we already had put in a lot of great and hard work. But that we will compete against similar good or even way better teams the next time. We should work hard to improve our demo and pitch even more. When I heard him saying that I thought: “We are going there to win not to compete”. I wanted to improve everything and outwork all other teams. I said to myself: “Here we go let’s outwork the competition”.

Just a few minutes later – personally and in a Skype conference – he told us that he didn’t really meant it literally. He then praised us for our great pitch and our amazing demo. Immediately and unconsciously my motivation went down.

Then – just a few moments later and in an email yesterday – our amazing professor Franca Ruhwedel also praised us for our great presentation and our great work. Once again I felt the same feelings of a decaying motivation within myself.

I realized that praise of results and intelligence – how nice it may sound – actually has a negative and dangerous side. I thought back and remembered a book I read a year ago, which is called “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck.

Mindset – Carol Dweck

In “Mindset” Carol Dweck identifies two mindsets in children and in people. The fixed mindset describes people who believe that their personal qualities are unchangeable. The growth mindset described people who believe that the future is there to grow if there are challenging times.

In her research, she found out that children who are praised for their intelligence tend to adopt a fixed mindset and thus reject new challenges. As a result, children and people who received a lot of praise on how good they are always wanted to hide their weaknesses. They avoid the extra work – which is actually needed to become successful. On the other hand, if students were praised for their hard work rather than how great their work was or – in our case – how great the demo or pitch was – enjoyed working on harder problems and accepting new challenges.

In her research, she found out that children who are praised for their intelligence tend to adopt a fixed mindset and thus reject new challenges. As a result, children and people – who receive a lot of praise on how good and intelligent they are – always avoid new challenges to hide their weaknesses. They avoid the extra work – which is actually needed to become successful. On the other hand, if students are praised for their hard work rather than how great their work is or how intelligent they are enjoy working on harder problems. They love accepting new challenges.

I remembered Carol Dweck’s research immediately. I realized that the praise on our “great work” actually lowered our chances for success in the competition. By hearing that our pitch was already “great” we were less likely, to be honest with ourselves. Less likely to reassess our weaknesses which is necessary to really win this challenge. This is why Ralf’s first approach – of praising our hard work but reminding that there are other teams on the same or even higher level out there – was the better one.

So if you really want your children, students, or employees to succeed think about how you praise them. Do you praise their intelligence or rather their hard work? And I really recommend reading “Mindset” from Carol Dweck – especially for parents, teachers, and managers. Praise and appreciate hard work rather than intelligence or astonishing results.

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