The media often presents a contradictory picture of young people, focusing on their almost constant need for praise and feedback. While the desire for a little praise and feedback is true of all generations and some personalities, too much praise—without problem-solving encouragement—has been found to be detrimental for individual growth from early childhood on. It can affect personal and professional growth.
A few years back, the concern about over-praising and feedback was focused on Millennials. In my experience coaching professionals at all stages, it is more common among that generation. For those who are older, I notice a maturing of this need as they are guided to develop their talents. However there are others who rely on their out-going personal style and exhibit a people-pleasing drive. Everyone in the work world has experienced this aspect of the millennial charm. They’re the first to describe themselves as energetic can-doers — fast, smart, eager, and exuding self-confidence. They’re often great in an interview and show up to take on many tasks. Plus, they’re usually fun to be around.
For this group and any generation, Professor of Psychology and researcher at Stanford, Dr. Carol Dweck, explores how doling out praise and superficial feedback can be detrimental to any employee. In her TED talk on “The Power of Believing You Can Improve,” she points out what many employers are experiencing:
“We have young employees who
can’t even get through the day without
getting an award.”
The need to provide continuous praise or feedback is concerning for managers. It’s also irritating because it takes so much time. Leaders also see that some employees do not grow in their role and responsibilities as a result of this lack of independent problem-solving. A skill which can be learned over time, when practiced. Lacking this gradual autonomous thinking and strategic action-taking, employees may not live up to the promised potential noted in hiring interviews or first weeks on the job.
It’s mystifying and urgent to unravel what’s at the core of this situation. Many companies are scrambling to meet what they hear as a frequently voiced want intermittently called “feedback,” “fun” and “career growth” and “purpose.” Some high-end, well-heeled companies are providing praise and parties, awards and cool couches or creative décor. All lovely. But according to Dweck, they may be missing the most important key to this conundrum.
Dweck’s research finds that responding to this need with praise and awards can send a growth-stunting message to people addicted to always being told they are smart, talented and that they can do anything. The sticking point — or stopping point — comes when they’re faced with difficulty, setbacks, or unfamiliar challenges. And we all know that the work world is frequently challenging and difficult. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck discusses the differences between a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. The differences between the two are measureable in brainwave activity and show up in all areas of life — from personal to professional.
The Fixed Mindset
A fixed mindset is when someone runs from challenge or difficulty. They shutdown, and there’s actually less brainwave activity. Someone with a fixed mindset may feel inadequate, ashamed, or embarrassed when critiqued or corrected. What’s more, they may also not attempt a next step in a project unless told how to do it. And if facing an obstacle, they may feel compelled to consult a supervisor or ask a lot of questions to avoid responsibility or failure. Without this input they would feel like they couldn’t move forward. Their brain would also be in stop-mode. The end-result is similar to people who become mentally “flooded” with emotion, anxiety, or panic when under stressful circumstances. The mind goes blank, and it’s impossible to think for one’s self.
Thus, if employees are simply praised for being talented or terrific, it’s like a mirage. Some are calling the underlying feelings as the “Imposter Syndrome” or feeling like a fraud. It’s a false sense of security that doesn’t hold up under the pressure or fire found in the world of work. Sadly to say in this scenario the individual self-esteem and self-identity is also dependent upon the verbal response they receive. This is because praise is focused on being “right” or “perfect” instead of being an enthusiastic, adventurous learner, which is found in the other mindset Dweck talks about.
The Growth Mindset
People with a growth mindset see setbacks, obstacles, or new responsibilities as challenges. This doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but they get excited about the process of figuring it out. They’re not hung up on having to perform perfectly. Rather, they’re focused on the process of learning. They find this enjoyable and rewarding in and of itself. They focus on the activity and process not on themselves performing perfectly and being praised for it as the measure. According to Dweck’s studies their brainwaves light up and are excitable.
People grow from embracing opportunities to continuously learn. Dweck says they develop the important qualities of grit and resilience, both of which are necessary in life. The growth mindset brain engages deeply. Their brain is on fire. The brain in growth mindset processes the error, learns from it and corrects it. This develops resilience and persistence that also builds self-confidence.
It shows up in performance on the job as well as in greater self-sufficiency when praise, feedback, and communication are less available. The outcome of creating a Growth Mindset culture is employees feeling good about tackling things, even when the tasks are challenging or difficult. This is then reflected in increased performance capability and a self-confident team.
Every leader would like to experience this brain-on-fire, growth mindset in all of their employees. The good news is that people can develop this mindset under the right conditions. Here are suggestions based on Carol Dweck’s years of research that will make you and your team more successful.
Create a growth mindset culture. Employers, managers, supervisors, coaches, and mentors have the opportunity to create an environment of continuous learning and growth mindset. Read the book together and discuss. Do a round robin over lunch about ways each member of your team has experienced growth mindset encouragement and its effects versus fixed mindset responses.
Give feedback with a future. Coach and mentor employees for “not yet” instead of for “now.” You may not know how to do this yet but you can learn how. Then give them the resources to help them learn to think it through.
Practice praising for process. Rather than praising personal qualities, provide feedback on the process used to accomplish a goal or objective. Focus on their strategies, efforts, perseverance, or improvements. It’s about praising wisely. If needs be, help them look for ways to develop the strategies necessary to reach goals or objectives.
Ask growth-developing questions. Before doling out praise, ask employees how they arrived at their conclusions. Ask them to think of the values, mission, goals, and objectives embedded in daily task. Then, tie it to a bigger picture in regard to the project, the team, or the company as a whole. Get them to think.
Position rewards strategically. It’s all well and good to provide rewards for accomplishments. But not every single reward should necessarily be associated with outcomes. To support the growth minds, consider rewarding for effort, strategy, and process.
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