Big Ideas

Praise Effort and Grit, Not Talent

In his role as vice president and executive producer for Skillsoft’s leadership video content, G. Shawn Hunter has collaborated with and interviewed hundreds of executives, thought leaders, academics, and authors around the world.

He distills their insights into his new book, Out Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. Here’s an excerpt that points out how the most meaningful form of praise isn’t about smarts — it’s about grit.

Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, led a fascinating study in 1998 in which she and her colleagues gave four hundred fifth graders a series of tests, mostly puzzles. The researchers then praised the students using one of two sets of six[-plus] words each. With half of the group they said, “You must be smart at this,” and with the other half they said, “You must have tried really hard at this.”

The first word set awarded intelligence and innate talent…. The second word set praised effort, determination, preparation, and grit. What the researchers were interested in was how the kids, depending on the type of praise they received, would view their abilities — as fixed and unchanging, or as malleable and able to grow and change with work.

In the next round of puzzles, the kids were offered a choice: They could try harder problems or easier ones. Perhaps surprisingly, the kids praised for talent selected the easier problems while the kids praised for effort chose to attempt the harder ones. Why? While we might think that receiving praise for innate abilities would inspire confidence, instead Dweck found that we create a form of status — a height from which to fall. If people believe they have special talent and are expected to perform well, the thought of failing expectations becomes a liability. To protect themselves as “gifted and talented” individuals, they will choose easier tasks to ensure they have high performance….

While the difference between these two groups of kids was just [a few different] words, keep in mind there are a lot of ways to say, “You must have tried really hard.” Dweck and her colleagues use this kind of effort or “process praise” for encouraging engagement, perseverance, and improvement. Here are some examples of how to convey recognition of grit and perseverance in those around you, modeled on Dweck’s suggestions:

  • “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that reporting problem until you finally got it.”
  • “I like that you took on that challenging project…. It will take a lot of work — doing the research, designing the integration, acquiring the resources, and building it. You’re going to learn a lot of great things.”

Next time we see excellence, we should praise the effort it must have taken to get there.

Reprinted by permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from Out Think, by G. Shawn Hunter Copyright © 2013 by G. Shawn Hunter.

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