Praise For Effort, Not Ability

Topic(s): development
Publication: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1998)
Article: Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance
Authors: C. M. Mueller, C. S. Dweck
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin, M.A.

Imagine that you are the head of a department and have nine employees that report to you. When one does well, do you praise him or her for performance or effort? Do you say, “Great work on closing that deal,” a type of praise focused on performance, or do you tell your employee, “Way to really work hard,” a praise focused more on effort.

While you mull that over, consider a study of fifth graders. Though a school and business are different in the demographics of the population and the task of the organization, as the goal of a school is typically to educate while the goal of a business is to generate profit, they are similar in that they are both contexts in which there is a supervisor-type figure, a teacher in a school and a boss or manager in a business, that is responsible for the performance of his or her direct reports (i.e., students or employees).


In their study that explored the relationship between praise and performance, Mueller and Dweck found that when children were praised for effort, they performed better than those who had been praised for ability. Children who were congratulated for their hard work solved more problems successfully than those who were told that they were smart. Further, it was also found that those praised for effort have learning goals (i.e., aspire to improve and learn more), high levels of task persistence and task enjoyment, and a tendency to attribute setbacks to a lack of effort. In contrast, those who were praised for being intelligent had performance goals (i.e., aspire to get perfect grades), low levels of task persistence and task enjoyment, and a tendency to attribute setbacks to a lack of ability. These results were found through six randomized-control studies that examined, among other variables, the goals, persistence, learning goals, task enjoyment, attribution of failure, theory of intelligence, and performance on a problem-solving task of hundreds of fifth graders.


These results suggest that praising an individual for how hard he or she worked instead of what a great job he or she did has many benefits, including increasing performance. If these results hold and are applicable to adults in a business setting, managers and heads of departments may want to evaluate how they praise their employees.


Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.

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