How to make your praise effective

Praise, when done right, gives leaders and parents the opportunity to enhance the resilience and performance of others. First, however, you need to avoid the traps that can weaken the impact of your praise. Ineffective praise focuses on a person’s traits (“You are so smart!”) or only the outcome (“You did it!”) but leaves out the process, strategy, or behavior that led to the success.

Effective praise is a lot like effective criticism. When you criticize someone, you likely don’t just say “You are so dumb!” or “You are the worst!” or “Booooo!” because you know it isn’t effective. Instead, you take the time to describe what the person did wrong and how he or she can improve. You’re helping someone learn and grow by naming the process, strategy, or behavior that led to the failure and how to change that behavior. In the same way, you can make your praise effective just by adding an extra sentence to identify what led to the accomplishment.

Don’t just praise...Teach!

Service Member fires the M-240B machine gun as he participates in marksmanship training.The goal of effective praise is not only to make the recipient feel good but to teach through success. When someone does a great job, it might seem like there’s nothing more to teach. However, many factors can contribute to success, including luck. Empty praise that just focuses on the person or the outcome doesn’t help a person know what he or she did right or how to do it again.

Effective praise directly names what led to the success and enables you to help the other person learn, grow, and lead to further success in the future! For example, someone in the unit you lead scored well during marksmanship training. Now you can help him learn what he did right by identifying the process—“You used deliberate breathing to keep yourself calm and steady, you kept level, and squeezed the trigger instead of pulling at it”—so he can repeat the process in the future. If you didn’t see what he did that led to the outcome, then ask him! This will help him to think more deeply about his strategy and make him more likely to repeat his behavior.

Grow from failure: Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

Ineffective praise also can lead to missed opportunities to teach others to grow from failure. Imagine your daughter is doing really well in math class, and you praise her by saying, “Wow, you are so smart!”, “You just got it’!”, or “You’re a natural at math!” But then she takes a tougher course and fails her first test. How do you think she’s likely to interpret that failure? Now she might think she isn’t all that smart, maybe math isn’t her thing, or she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in a tougher course. This is an example of a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that your basic qualities, such as intelligence and talent, can’t change. When you have a fixed mindset, you’re more likely to give up.

Now imagine you used effective praise instead: “Wow! Great job! I saw how hard you worked each night doing your math homework. You were very careful and took your time to show your work on your tests. When you were struggling with fractions you asked your teacher for extra help and worked hard to figure it out.”  How do you think she would interpret failing her first test in a tougher course? She might think she needs to work harder, be more careful to show her work, and ask for help to improve. This is an example of a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that your basic qualities can improve through hard work and dedication. Intelligence and talent are just the starting point. People with growth mindsets are more likely to perform better, as well as learn and grow from failure, and are less likely to give up. You can help others develop a growth mindset with the right kind of praise.

Bottom line

Your job as a leader or parent is to help others learn and grow. If your praise identifies the process, strategy, or behavior that led to the accomplishment, you can teach through success as well as failure. In this way you can help others perform better and become more resilient in the face of future adversities.


U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Garas

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