When it comes to praise, leaders of any type (be they managers, parents, or coaches) hold unique power. The actions they exalt become standards of success, while those they critique become standards of failure.
Too often, leaders praise the wrong things and leave good work unremarked upon. The effect is that the people over whom they hold influence (be they employees, children, or mentees) are more likely to avoid risk-taking or to second-guess their abilities, in turn paralyzing their own success.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, the bestselling author and Wharton professor, addresses this tension in “Wondering,” a monthly feature on his website in which he answers reader emails. In the October installment, one reader observed that ”we marvel at visible flashes of genius but deep down we want to believe that effort should be rewarded,” and asked how to know, as a manager or parent, when to praise inputs (efforts) over outputs (results), and vice versa.
Grant’s answer: We know to praise successes based on deep thought and real effort, and to criticize failures caused by weak effort and poor decision-making procedures. “But when the inputs don’t line up with the outputs, as parents and leaders, we focus too much on outcomes and not enough on processes,” he says.
To guardrail yourself from this mistake, consider Grant’s simple praise-giving matrix:
It’s a pretty common-sense approach, and yet many of us have opposite tendencies. That’s because, Grant tells Quartz At Work, we’re socially conditioned to criticize failure even when the endeavor involved a laudable level of effort and risk-taking. (For example, think of the reaction to a presentation that falls completely flat despite extensive, intelligent preparation.)
“We live in a winner-take-all society, as economist Robert Frank puts it, where disproportionate status and attention and rewards go to those who rise to the top,” Grant says. “There aren’t Olympic medals for thorough training that falls short of a world-class performance, or MacArthur genius grants for science that fails to produce a breakthrough.”
Instead of rewarding good results based on bad processes, we need to start rewarding bad results based on good processes, Grant says. As he explains on his “Wondering” page, this is because praising luck “breeds overconfidence in poor strategies,” and criticizing smart experiments “discourages reasonable risks.”
Inevitably, your employees and children will have lucky breaks. In these situations, Grant advises that you ”acknowledge the role of luck in the outcome, and emphasize that yes, it does affect success, but in both directions: Anyone who benefits from good luck is also vulnerable to bad luck.”
As for when someone is consistently failing, despite smart processes and planning, Grant encourages leaders to repeatedly inquire “whether learning is happening, and whether the insights gained outweigh the costs of the negative outcome.”
When managers (or parents or coaches) apply praise and criticism correctly, they can coax the desired outcome for a specific task. But they also can set the stage for future successes. After all, to be productive, people need to escape the paralyzing self-doubt that can stem from fears of what might happen if they fail, even if the effort was there. And when people who luck into success realize they need something more sustainable to stay there, they tend to get wondrously creative.