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When Saying “Great Job!” May Actually Backfire: Tapping into the psychology of praise

Social Writing Tips

so good great job

First, let’s take a praise test.

Below are 3 scenarios.  In each one, pick the statement of praise that you feel offers the most encouragement and motivation to the one receiving the praise.

Scenario #1

You just finished reading a report submitted by a coworker.

Which encouraging phrase would you say?

 

“Darby, you’re good at writing these reports.”
or
“Darby, you’re incredibly good at writing these reports.”

 

Scenario #2

Your boyfriend just finished 2nd Place for his age group in a local 5K fun run.

Which encouraging phrase would you say?

 

“Ashton, I’m so proud of you for finishing in 2nd place.”
or
“Ashton, you trained so hard for this race.  Congratulations!”

 

Scenario #3

A child has just returned home with an “A” on a recent test.

Which encouraging phrase would you say?

 

“Colton, you’re a super smart young man!”
or
“Colton, you studied hard for that test.  Good job!”

 

Remember your choices.  We’ll get to the answers a little later.

But first, let’s look at what the research says about the wrong and right way to offer encouraging praise.

1. Use Appropriate Levels of Praise

The higher the level of praise, the more harmful it may be.

A research article published in Psychological Science reveals how inflated praise can backfire.

Inflated praise involves the use of additional quantifiers that increase the perceived level of praise.  Words such as “incredibly”, “super”, “perfect”, or “very” tend to inflate the level of praise.

For example, saying “you’re incredibly good at this” inflates the more simple praise of “you’re good at this.”

In this study, Brummelman and his colleagues found that using inflated praise on children with low self-esteem actually decreased their future motivation for similar tasks.

If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well.  They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.

Caveat: This study also showed that children with already high self-esteem seemed to thrive on inflated praise.

Whether you are praising children or adults, someone with low self-esteem or high, you want to always leave room for future success.  Using inflated praise could lead to potential disappointment or lower perceived self-esteem if perfection is not reached in similar future experiences.

Using appropriate levels of praise is a good start to a handwritten note of encouragement.

Stick to phrases like, “good job”, “you’re good at that”, “you worked hard”, or “keep up your dedication”.

But, there’s more to writing praise that works than just paring down the adverbs.

2. Focus on the Effort Not the Person

Make praise about the person and it may fail.

A research study published in Developmental Psychology shows how praise focused on effort produces reduced feelings of helplessness and self-blame when compared to “person-praise.”

Person- or trait-related praise focuses on connecting personal abilities, goodness, or worthiness to performance.  Praise statements that include “you’re great”, “you’re amazing”, or “you’re smart” can connect success or failure to perceived personal value.

Connecting praise with intelligence or “smartness” can lead to feelings of “non-smartness” in the light of future failures or mistakes.

Praise focused on the person creates the assumption that “if I perform well, then I’m a ‘good’ person.  If I perform poorly, then I’m a ‘bad’ person”.

Mistakes and failures are learning opportunities, not a sign of stupidity.  Our praise should help reinforce this notion.

Findings from this study reveal how praising effort has more lasting positive effects:

  • It produces less feelings of helplessness
  • It results in more positive feelings about the final product
  • It improves feelings of self-worth
  • It reduces the connection of future performance to “goodness” or “badness”
  • It improves persistence and motivation in future setbacks

To get the most out of praise, focus on the process or effort, not the person.

Phrases that focus on effort go something like: “You didn’t give up”, “You followed the instructions”, “You thought outside the box”, or “You did a good job of problem solving.”

What works best is to use simple praise focused on effort.

Let’s revisit the results of your Praise IQ test and see what you have learned.

The Right Answers to Your Praise IQ Test

You’ve probably already corrected yourself.

Let’s review each scenario, using our updated understanding of praise.

Scenario #1

You just finished reading a report submitted by a coworker.

Right way: Darby, you’re good at writing these reports. (simple)
Wrong way: Darby, you’re incredibly good at writing these reports. (inflated)


Scenario #2

Your girlfriend just finished 2nd Place for her age group in a local 5K fun run.

Wrong way: Ashton, I’m so proud of you for finishing in 2nd place. (focused on performance)
Right way: Ashton, you trained so hard for this race.  Congratulations! (focused on process)


Scenario #3

A child has just returned home with an “A” on a recent test.

Wrong way: Kolton, you’re a super smart young man! (focused on intelligence, and inflated)
Right way: Kolton, you studied hard for that test.  Good job! (focused on effort, and simple)

Even if you missed a few the first time around, you can see how to put these two proven strategies into practice.

Proper praise is all about encouraging future motivation and self-worth with simple nurturing praises of effort.

This type of praise works for children and adults alike.

Give it a Try!

Now you can easily offer praise that works.

Just follow these simple praise strategies:

  • Focus on effort or the process – this improves their motivation to repeat the effort or hard work in the future.
  • Don’t go over the top – Using simple phrases motivate.

Here are 20 Phrases adapted from a Yahoo Answers discussion to supercharge your next handwritten “Congratulations!”

  1. You’ve got it made.
  2. You’re on the right track now.
  3. You’re good at that.
  4. You’ve come a long way.
  5. You deserve it.  You’ve worked so hard.
  6. You’re doing a good job.
  7. Now you’ve figured it out.
  8. Keep working – you’re getting better.
  9. You make it look easy.
  10. You’re getting better every day.
  11. You’re growing up!
  12. You’re really improving.
  13. Good thinking!
  14. You figured that out fast!
  15. Clever!
  16. Way to go.
  17. I’m proud of the way you worked today.
  18. You’re learning fast.
  19. Keep up the good work.
  20. Well, look at you go!

 

Flickr creative commons image courtesy of font font.



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