Does it ever cross your mind that praise can be negative? I guess not. After all, it looks harmless and seems to be quite effective. Conventional wisdom says that if you praise people, they are motivated to do better.
People who have been praised throughout their life by their well-meaning parents, friends, and teachers for their talent and smartness or those who have experienced extreme focus on talent and smartness throughout their childhood learn to value only intelligence. No wonder when these people enter the workforce, they continue to seek approval and demand praise every step of the way.
Every opportunity is a measure of their intelligence — do I look smart, how will I be judged, what if others find my ideas dumb. With a single-minded focus on validating themselves, all their actions are rooted in establishing their worth. Every mistake hurts their reputation and every failure is a reflection of their competence. They care less about learning and more about proving themselves. Their sense of morality sometimes takes a hit as they resort to brutal behaviors — demeaning others by yelling, insulting, controlling, or taking undue credit — all in an attempt to boost their self-esteem.
Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University summarized this unfortunate reality from Morgan McCall’s book High Flyers:
"People often like the things that work against their growth. . . . People like to use their strengths . . . to achieve quick, dramatic results, even if . . . they aren’t developing the new skills they will need later on. People like to believe they are as good as everyone says . . . and not take their weaknesses as seriously as they might. People don’t like to hear bad news or get criticism. . . . There is tremendous risk . . . in leaving what one does well to attempt to master something new."
What Do Organizations Do with Such People?
They feed and promote this mindset. They praise people for their brilliant ideas conveying the message “we value talent and intelligence.” They shower people with rewards and bonuses for their achievements communicating to everyone else around “all we care about is success.”
What happens when these people take on a leadership role? Their mindset of valuing brilliance above everything else amplifies leading to disastrous results. History is full of leadership fiascos with great promises that turned out to be the biggest disasters. This article from Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker is as valid now as it was 18 years ago. Describing the talent mindset at Enron and the consultants at McKinsey who wandered the hallways at the company’s headquarters, he points out “They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.”
He also talks about the impact of an environment that values innate talent and what happens when times get tough and that self-image is threatened: “They have difficulty with the consequences. They will not take the remedial course. They will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.”
Really, is praising people for their intelligence and achievements the only way to develop people who will be the leaders of tomorrow? Is there a better way out?
What if we praised people for their hard work, for their ability to persist despite failures and setbacks, for taking initiatives to build new skills, for standing up to their mistakes, for believing in their growth, and implementing the right strategies to overcome their shortcomings. What does this kind of praise tell them?
It tells them the value of effort in building abilities. It teaches them the importance of implementing the right strategies to solve problems. It encourages them to seek help to make progress on their task. It creates a passion for learning that’s not driven by the need to look smart, but with a desire to cultivate skills, to stretch themselves to grow.
When these people take on leadership positions, this mindset guides them to put the well-being of the company and its people before their own needs, to place value on teamwork over individual accomplishment, and to foster growth and development of their people.
"As growth-minded leaders, they start with a belief in human potential and development — both their own and other people’s. Instead of using the company as a vehicle for their greatness, they use it as an engine of growth — for themselves, the employees, and the company as a whole."
- Carol Dweck
Unlike leaders who pull their companies down with their focus on brilliance, these leaders lead their companies into greatness and gratitude filled in their own hearts and those of the people around them.
Choose your praise carefully as you will see the tremendous benefits in praising for growth over brilliance.
When Leaders Focus on Brilliance
They live in a world of personal greatness and entitlement, vie for labels, and will do anything to boost their image. Instead of building a long-lasting company, they spend time and money on enhancing their image.
With the constant need for validation, they use people in the company to feed their egos and showcase their superiority. Everything is about pleasing the boss. They surround themselves with people who boost their self-esteem. Agreement earns them admiration and disagreement is an attack on their intelligence. Instead of hearing people out, they punish dissent and shut people down.
They pounce at the less talented for their lack of intelligence and find those who are more talented than they are as threatening. They mistreat employees, yell, insult, control and abuse them into their way of doing things. They feel better about themselves by making other people feel worse. Employees worry about being judged all the time. When people are ridiculed for mistakes, they soon learn to keep their heads down, stop putting their critical thinking skills to use, and give in to groupthink.
Their belief in their superiority blinds them to see reality. They turn a blind eye to complaints, ignore warning signs, and fire people who tell them what they don’t want to hear. Their decision-making criteria are based on what would make them look good as opposed to what’s good for the company long term.
"What happens when a leader refuses to confront the brutal facts? “The minute a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse. This is one of the key reasons why less charismatic leaders often produce better long-term results than their more charismatic counterparts."
- Jim Collins
Since success and failure are a part of their identity — success means they are smart and failure means they are not — they find excuses and blame others for failures instead of taking personal responsibility. Instead of investing in the future growth of their company, they play safe with fear of failure, become less responsive to challenges from competition, go with what’s tried and tested, and refuse to take risks. Why take up the challenge that can hurt their reputation? On the other extreme, they may not shy away from crossing ethical boundaries to beat the competition at all costs. Success is what they are after and it doesn’t matter how they get it.
With more focus on talent and less on potential, they do not invest in mentoring and coaching employees. Instead of putting practices in place to develop employees and help them collaborate together, they make them compete against each other.
Carol Dweck sums up their brilliant mindset: “My genius not only defines and validates me. It defines and validates the company. It is what creates value. My genius is profit. Wow!”
When Leaders Focus on Growth
They operate with a learning mode. They don’t claim to be genius but promise to invest in development, their own development, and the development of their people. The drive and enthusiasm to grow their companies make them adopt long-term strategies over short-term tactics. They aren’t in the game to boost their ego or establish their self-esteem. It’s the pure joy of shaping the future of their company that excites and motivates them. More than prestige, they are in it for the challenge.
They understand that the path to success goes through failure. Why lose the opportunity that can drive their future growth? So instead of hiding behind their failures, they face them head-on. Failures don't define their competence, they are glaring moments of self-reflection. They are opportunities to build skills, explore possibilities, experiment, and invest in the promise of a better future.
They lead with vulnerability. They accept mistakes to shift the focus in the organization from hiding mistakes to finding solutions. When they don’t know something, instead of pretending to hide their ignorance, they say “I don’t know." These three powerful words show humility and self-confidence. To make decisions, they invite others to share their opinion which promotes the culture of constructive criticism. Since they do not connect their identity to their opinion, more value is placed on seeking the right answers which require open disagreements and championing flexibility of opinion over their sense of righteousness.
Difficult situations make them uncomfortable, no doubt. Instead of letting their discomfort get in the way of meaningful conversations, they embrace it. They choose to look past their discomfort in the value that these discussions provide — saving a lot of time that can be wasted due to stress and anxiety that comes from misalignment of expectations and lack of clarity of purpose.
They are tough but compassionate. They do not shy away from giving critical feedback while also challenging the people in their organization to step outside their comfort zone. They empower people to make decisions with the right channels of feedback to assist in better decision-making in the organization.
Leaders with the growth mindset operate with what Lou Gerstner, who turned IBM’s fortunes around by saving it from near bankruptcy said: “Hierarchy means very little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a problem, regardless of position.” Not blinded by reality, they focus on finding solutions that will push their company forward. This requires keeping an open eye to change in market trends, identifying and investing in future growth areas, and taking calculated risks.
With a focus on potential and growth, they invest in identifying and building future skills of the organization — skills that will be useful during difficult circumstances giving them an advantage over the competition. They foster productivity through coaching and mentoring, place value on teamwork by encouraging collaboration and defining shared measures of success.
Warren Bennis, a scholar, author, and widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of Leadership studies, writes in Organizing Genius:
"Leaders are people who believe so passionately that they can seduce other people into sharing their dream."
His most admirable view on leadership says:
"Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organisation. When that happens people feel centred and that gives their work meaning."
What kind of leaders think like this — those focused on brilliance or the ones driven by growth?
Previously published here.