The Science of Praise – Boost performance, results and resilience

The Science of Praise – Boost performance, results and resilience

In this blog, we explore some of the

  1. Science behind praise,
  2. The different types of praise,
  3. How it is received and
  4. Its ability to affect mindset and performance

Praise in our definition only refers to positive feedback; feedback by itself can be either positive or negative

Here’s a question for you!

  • Would you prefer staff that hold a tendency to withdraw effort and avoid challenges or
  • Ones that increase effort in the face of challenge and seek out new challenges?

I’m sure I don’t have to be Derren Brown to guess your answer.

The most interesting thing is how can you work with both psychologies above and use praise to positive effect?

Well, read on 🙂

Research on intelligence, motivation and praise.

Back in the 1960’s Psychologist Albert Bandura began work on our innate need to make a difference and make purposeful decisions in the outcomes of our life. Especially being and feeling in control.

This early research links to praise as a tool in which we can help our staff feel purposeful, meaningful, in control and engage these motivational dynamics when in our employment.

In the ’70s, Carol Dweck (research psychologist at Stanford University) took Bandura’s research and applied it to learning.

Her theories revealed two main beliefs that directly affect the way we praise our children, colleagues and staff.

1. Some people hold beliefs that their intelligence is fixed and this can lead them to withdraw effort and to avoid challenges when things get tough. This is known as entity theory.

This happens as they encounter a growing challenge and they begin to perceive this as a threat to the sense of their intelligence. Because they believe their intelligence is fixed and may not be good enough to cope so they withdraw under the challenge.

If we praise these people for their intelligence, it feeds the limiting self-belief that their intelligence won’t improve and our praise is seen as pointless; although they are unlikely to reveal this directly to us.

2. In contrast, those that believe intelligence can be increased through their own efforts lead to increased output and the desire to seek out challenges. This is known as an incremental theory.

Those with an incremental perception tend to have greater self-efficacy and resilience, which are important in all areas of life and especially so in the face of difficulties and setbacks and our ability to grow into our potential.

Supporting our teams to challenge, grow and perform.

How we talk to our staff about their performance and work, therefore, affects our staff’s reactions to challenge and how they embrace it.

If unconsciously we give feedback and praise that reinforces the entity theory, praising people for their intelligence and not their effort, it feeds the limiting self-belief that their intelligence won’t improve and unknowingly we help them withdraw.

Whereas praise given for our staff members’ effort reduces the entity perception they hold.

Overall, Dweck’s research shows that it is more productive to attribute success and failures to effort, rather than intelligence.

Interestingly, her research also reveals that entity perceptions are more prevalent in females and under-represented minorities. This is true for a wide range of ages and across different levels of academic achievement levels.

The control factor.

An effort is perceived as under our control, whereas intelligence isn’t. And so when we praise it is important to use this to focus on what is within the control reach of staff.

How often have you heard staff bemoaning and de-motivated by aspects out of their control and then becoming more withdrawn?

Our praise must embrace this insight because many of us grow up as children being praised for our intelligence. How bright and clever we are or for how dumb we are or more softly implied that we have let ourselves and others down, related to intelligence, in not making certain grades.

Each time we hear these beliefs, handed down to us during our most impressionable years we form solid perceptions that we take into adulthood.

What a person believes causes his or her successes and failures.

  • How many of your staffs believe their success and failures are within their control?
  • Or do some relinquish responsibility because they believe that their success and failures are due to forces beyond their control?

Such as:

  • Bad luck
  • Having a poor manager
  • Not being given enough support or training
  • A lack of time
  • Because they believe they work for an uncaring company or
  • They perceive themselves as not being up to scratch

Of course, praise for intelligence has a positive intention behind it and can motivate when students are doing well. It backfires when people face challenges that become more difficult.

Therefore, praise for intelligence is a short term strategy that gets limited results whereas genuine praise for their efforts, in the face of success or failure triggers the sense of control that we really need them to feel.

Dos and Don’ts for Praise


  • Notice staffs good efforts and strategies and praise them
  • Be specific about the praised behaviours and reinforce this behaviour with your feedback. “The effort you put into empathy to handle that difficult customer was excellent”
  • Use praise to link the outcomes of their work to their efforts. “This meant by the end of the conversation you had ethically dissolved the customers’ emotions”
  • Detail the specific strategies the staff member has used in their efforts. Noting which were useful and those that were not. “By not using ‘yes but’ when saying no positively to your customer you avoided further confrontation.
  • Ask the staff to explain the efforts that have gone into their work and performance


  • Don’t offer praise for trivial accomplishments or weak efforts
  • Don’t help staff to feel ashamed of the difficulties they may be having. Instead, treat each as an opportunity for learning
  • Never say, “You’re smart/clever/intelligent/bright”. Instead, praise the work they have done. E.g. “Your work is very clear/detailed/accurate, etc”
  • Never, even jokingly, make derisory remarks about another’s supposed, lack of intelligence. It’s easy to imply they are others are one sandwich short of a picnic!

When I first entered into learning and development 25 years ago there was a well-known phrase doing the rounds. ‘Always catch people doing things right’. Twenty-five years on that is as needed as it was back then.

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