Praise is an important part of building confidence, motivation and self-reliance. According to a study by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.
However, experts say it’s not how much praise you give that will influence future behaviour, but the way you do it. Here are some tips for giving praise to kids, colleagues or your sports team, to reinforce great results and encourage a positive mindset in the future.
1. Praise effort, not intelligence
The research by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia University looked at the effects of praise on 400 fifth-graders in New York schools over a period of around 10 years. The results were clear: students who were praised for their effort (‘you must have worked really hard’) performed better than those who were praised for their natural intelligence (‘you must be really smart’).
“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” On the other hand, kids who understood that the brain is a muscle and will get smarter as more effort is applied, worked harder at tasks and got better results—whether they were naturally gifted at them or not. So regardless of the result, consider praising others’ effort rather than their natural intelligence or skill at a particular task.
2. Be specific
Praise can be a motivating force, but it needs to be specific. A study by the University of Notre Dame1 found that praising the amount of times hockey players checked an opponent during the game, rather than a general compliment such as ‘great game’, resulted in an all-round better performance by players.
In the workplace, telling someone why their work was excellent, can also help them identify what worked and what components of the project need to be improved in the future.
3. Be sincere
Before you compliment your child, colleague or team, make sure their effort is worthy of praise. Psychologist and researcher Wulf-Uwe Meyer found that children are just as cynical of insincere praise as adults. Young children take praise at face value, but by the age of twelve they scrutinised the praise for signs of honesty and hidden agendas.
In fact, kids participating in the study viewed praise from a teacher as a sign they lacked ability and needed extra encouragement. The research found that teenagers discounted praise to such an extent that they believed criticism by a teacher was a better indication of good performance.
The key is to be honest and specific when praising someone’s effort. This healthy balance will ensure they are motivated to work hard and understand how to improve their results over time.
What are your tips for giving praise at home or in the workplace?
 Anderson, D. C., Crowell, C. R., Doman, M. & Howard, G. (1988). A systematic analyses of feedback, goal-setting, and work-contingent praise applied to a university hockey team. Journal of Applied Psychology.