Can praise be bad as well as good?

It’s generally well accepted that you should praise people; and that people will perform better if they are regularly praised when they do good things.  The premise is simple: people like being praised, so if you praise them when they do a good job they’ll want to do more good things and thus receive more praise.  Their self-confidence will improve and they’ll be happier.  However, is it that simple?  Or can praising people sometimes be detrimental?

business people thumbs up - praise effort not abilityWell the research suggests it can, if you praise the wrong thing.  Meuller and Dweck (1998) ran a large study into praise on a group of over 400 school children, comparing different ways of giving praise.  The children were given a logic puzzle type of intelligence test; the type where you have a series of shapes and have to say what the next one in the series is.  The results were marked and the children were then given feedback; however the feedback was false.  They were all told they’d solved at least 80% of the puzzles.  One group was also told they must be really smart; they were praised for ability, for their intelligence.  Another group was not praised.

They were then given a choice of doing: what was said to be a difficult task, which although they would learn something from, they might not be able to do; or an easier task where they wouldn’t learn much.  Two thirds of the group praised for intelligence chose the easier task, compared to less than half of those not praised.  They were then given a difficult task and asked how much they enjoyed it.  The group praised for their intelligence found the task to be far less enjoyable.  Finally they were given another set of logic puzzles which were of a similar difficulty as the original puzzles.  Although at the start the two groups had scored similarly, now the group that had been praised for their intelligence did significantly worse in the final test.  Praising for intelligence had made things less enjoyable and resulted in worse performance.  Not what you might expect when you’re praising people.

So what’s going on here?  It is suggested that praising someone for their intelligence makes them feel good; however it can also induce a fear of failure, which means they will avoid difficult situations which would put their ability into question.  Also if they’re intelligent they don’t have to put in the work, so they don’t try as hard and therefore don’t get good results.

However, don’t worry; this doesn’t mean you should forget about praising people.  In addition to the two groups mentioned above there was also a third group.  After the initial intelligence test they were also told they’d scored at least 80% and then told they must have worked really hard; they were praised for their effort.  The subsequent results for this group were significantly different.  Only about a tenth of this group opted for the easy task in the second stage of the experiment, compared to two thirds of those praised for intelligence.  They also found the harder task more enjoyable.  And in the final test they solved more puzzles than they had in the initial test; a dramatic difference from the other groups.  Here it suggested that praising them for effort had resulted in them wanting to try regardless of the consequences; without a fear of failure, taking on a more challenging task is easier.  Even if they fail, they simply put it down to not trying hard enough, as opposed to thinking it’s too difficult for them.

Now the above experiment was performed with school children; however other research has found similar results in older subjects.  Perhaps it shows we’re all just children at heart; and I would argue the above holds true in business situations when managers praise the members of their teams.

The message from this is do praise your staff; however praise them for effort not ability.  Praising for ability may result in short term gain, but because ability can be seen as fixed, people develop a fear of failure and avoid anything challenging.  Praising for effort is about something they can control and will therefore motivate your team to work harder and enjoy the challenges.

Mike Jones specialises in developing Emotional Intelligence.  If you would like help to improve your and your team’s self-confidence and resilience call him now on +44 (0)1908 509088 or email


Reference: Mueller, C.M. and Dweck, C.S. (1998) ‘Praise for Intelligence can undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, pp. 33-52.

About Mike Jones

Mike Jones is an executive coach specialising in developing Emotional Intelligence through transitional and performance coaching. You can contact him directly on +44(0)7747 011 589 or via

One Comment

  • Jon
    7 Apr 2013 | Permalink | Reply

    Very interesting article thanks Mike and this effort v ability things sits under many of the schooling, and leadership, discussions.

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