“Good Job” Isn’t Good Enough: What It Means to Praise the Process

Praise can have damaging effects. To a coworker, “Wow, you learned that new software fast. You’re a genius.” To your boss, “Great sales pitch, you’re a natural at working the room.” To your daughter, “Way to go Casey. You’re so smart you got an A on that math test.”  To your wife, “You look beautiful in that dress, all done up.” What is wrong with praise like this?
 
The research of Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, finds that praise centered on a person or his/her ability may actually sabotage performance. The statements above seem encouraging on the surface, but the recipient grasps a deeper message. The coworker, “If it takes me longer to learn something, I’m not that smart after all.” Your boss, “If I take risks in my sales pitch, people may discover I have to prepare a lot to deliver like that.” Your daughter, “If I want people to think I’m smart I have to get A’s. I better not take that honors class.” Your wife, “He only thinks I’m pretty when I’m all fancied up.” You get the idea. Thankfully, in contrast, Dweck and others have found praising the process, effort, action or strategy can have quite the opposite effect.

 

Praise assortment

 
As a USPTA tennis professional, I went through a fairly thorough certification process. One thing that really stuck with me was what I learned about giving feedback. Players should receive a consistent diet of specific, behavior-based praise to reinforce proper techniques, tactics and other desirable actions. For example, I might say to a player, “Nice cross-over step, and you kept your racquet out in front on that volley; excellent.” I caught players doing things right. I quickly learned to praise what I wanted repeated. I taught players to perform consistently by repeating all the right things and thus eliminating undesired actions.
 
In classrooms and businesses today, the push is to “catch people doing something right.”  Ken Blanchard’s book by that title employs leaders to focus on the positives, to call out those desired behaviors as a way to empower their team members. Parents, teachers, and coaches can all apply the same approach. Further research suggests that what we recognize and the words we say have huge implications. In fact, we may completely miss the mark if we aren’t highly attuned to what we are praising in our homes, classrooms and business teams.
 

If you aim to shape the attitudes and actions of other people (young and old alike), here are 4 compelling reasons you should praise the process:
 
Praising the Process Leads to Increased Effort and Persistence
Praising people on your team for the progress they made and for how they stayed hopeful in the face of setbacks reinforces those behaviors. Soon your whole team will look for ways to solve problems and overcome obstacles on their own. Doing the same with children helps them focus on applying more effort instead of throwing in the towel when the going gets tough. Praising the process teaches a “never give up” attitude and that perseverance pays off through prolonged effort.

Praising the Process Leads to Greater Enjoyment and Engagement
In contrast, praising only results and outcomes can teach people to overlook how they got there. Sales teams struggle with this when incentives are over-emphasized. A top performer stops producing when he has reached his quota. Teens can be the same way. They learn to take short-cuts, cut corners and give the least amount of effort as long as the assignment is turned in or the goals are met. However, praising others for their creative problem solving, critical thinking and listening to the customer’s needs focuses them on the path, not the outcome. They learn to enjoy day-to-day work, not just days when they make the sale, ship the product or hit a home run. Kids learn to enjoy learning, discovery and questioning rather than getting the grade and passing the test. Novel idea, I know.

Praising the Process Leads to Growth
High achievers focus on improvement, honing their craft and getting better. Average achievers aim to prove they have what it takes, the ability or knowhow. For the average performer, success validates what  she hopes to be true about herself – she has the ability to win. But failures validate worst fears – she doesn’t have what it takes. “I’m not smart enough for this job.” Worse, she doesn’t think she has any control over her ability to learn and grow. Dweck calls this a Fixed Mindset. Praising individuals and their abilities perpetuates this and stifles the individual’s potential.
 
Praising the process, however, teaches team members that they are in control, that they can adapt, learn and improve. A young professional may think, “I can’t improve smart, but I can hone my ability to try hard, study, prepare and communicate better.” Praise that focuses on the strategy that led to success will pay big dividends in that individual’s future successes. Now she knows what to repeat and sustain to get results.
 
Praising the Process Leads to Higher Performance 
Nothing worth achieving comes easy. Your organization won’t accomplish much without its share of obstacles and setbacks. Neither will your family. If a person develops persistence, is engaged and is growing (because you praised the process) it stands to reason that he will also perform at a higher level. He won’t back down from a challenge because he’s afraid to fail. Your coworker will get even better at presentations because he prepares. Your daughter will accept the challenge of an honors class. Your wife will know that you appreciate her intellect and diligence, not just her beauty. People will take risks. Those risks may carry great reward, not just around the office, but at home and on the playing field too.

 

“Where there is genuine encouragement, people excel and succeed, not because they are told to but because they want to,” said Ronald Reagan. If you want your spouse, students and team to pursue their greatest potential, develop winning streaks or take your organization to the next level, praise. Praising the person, their ability or looks isn’t all bad. However, you don’t want it to make up the majority of your praise. Instead, praise the process that led to the successful outcomes. Tell them what you want repeated and it will spread like wild fire. “Good job” isn’t near good enough. Be specific. Keep it coming. That is how to motivate people and take them to the next level again and again.

  

Question: I’m curious how you have used praise to shape the actions of people around you. Please share your experiences in the comments below.

 
 
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Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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