Why Your Feedback May Not Be as Good as You Think it is

When someone messes up at work, we don’t say, “Wow, you’re incompetent!” Most of us ascribe to the idea that criticizing the behavior and not the person lends better results. That’s true. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that applying the same feedback approach to success also lends the best results. Why do we say things like, “great job;” “you’re the next Lebron James;” “you have a gift for selling;” and so on? 

skewed muffin

An Experiment in Feedback to 5th Graders:

Dweck and Mueller (1998), researchers from Columbia University, conducted an experiment with three groups of 5th grade students. The students were asked to complete three sets of problems. The first set was moderately difficult. After completing the problems, the students were given different forms of praise for their performances. All children were told they had done well. Additionally, one group was praised for their ability, “You must be smart at these problems.” A second group was praised for their effort, “You must have worked hard at these problems.” A control group received no additional feedback.

Next, all children were given the opportunity to select a goal. They could choose a performance goal that focused on displaying their ability such as “problems that aren’t too hard, so I don’t get many wrong.” Or students could choose a learning goal that focused on developing their ability such as, “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart.”

92% of the students who received praise for their effort chose a learning goal, but only 33% of children who received praise for their ability (intelligence) chose a learning goal.

Mueller & Dweck (1998) concluded that “effort praise led children to want to learn new things, while intelligence praise led children to wish to continue looking smart.” That’s a huge difference! This reflects the contrast between the fixed and growth mindsets that I wrote about here.

The children were then asked to complete a second group of problems that was markedly more difficult than the first. Afterward they received feedback that they had performed “a lot worse” on these problems. Lastly, they were asked to complete third set of problems that was equal in difficulty to the first set (moderately difficult).

Strikingly, the 5th grade students who received the intelligence feedback performed significantly worse than both the effort praise and the control group on the third set of problems. Let me remind you that these were just as difficult as the ones they’d previously done well on. Their prior success had no positive impact.

Rather, the type of feedback they received appeared to cause a drop in performance. Note: generally there was no difference among the three groups in their actual scores on the first two problem sets. Where one group attributed their failure to effort and persistence, the other seemed to believe they weren’t smart enough to do well on the last set of problems.

A couple of additional highlights from this and other related studies:

Praise contrast

Praising the Process

So, how can we provide those around us with effective feedback that gets results? I call it praising the process. And here’s what you need to know.

We can be more intentional in praising the process by focusing our feedback on 3 main areas.

Effort: Focus feedback on behaviors such as focusing on the task-at-hand and working hard.

  • A general example might be, “Your hard work contributed to that success.”
  • When a baseball player gets a hit, you might say, “You must be focusing on the ball. Keep honing your skills in the batting cage.”
  • When someone has achieved a goal, you could say, “Your hard work and continued effort to get better appears to be paying off.” Or, “see what you can do when you pour your heart into something?”

Strategy: Focus feedback toward the strategies that contributed to the good outcome.

  • A general example might be, “You found a good way to do it. Can you think of other ways that may also work?”
  • When someone comes up with a unique solution to a problem, you may say, “You came up with a really good strategy for the problem.”
  • When someone beats you at chess, you could say, “It appears you had a really good strategy.”

Persistence: Focus feedback on the persistence and determination that led to success.

  • Generally, “Continuing to work hard and push through the adversity paid off.”
  • When someone completes a long-term goal, you could offer, “Your determination to stick with your plan really made a difference.”
  • When someone sticks with a tough project, you might say, “I’m really proud of the way you didn’t give up and kept fighting despite the setbacks.”

What About You?

Are you fostering a mindset of continued learning and development? Or are you unintentionally encouraging people to shy away from challenges and feel stuck in their abilities?

By the way, this isn’t just about 5th graders. Whether you are a parent, leader, coach or just focused on yourself – be smart with your feedback. Praise the process by focusing your feedback on the effort, strategy and persistence that led to success or improvement. Those are the ingredients to pursuing your true potential.

Question: Who is one person that you could use praising the process with today? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below.





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