Praising Mastery

by Jennifer Miller on November 6, 2009

in Leadership, Team Effectiveness

I’m reading the book The Power of Respect by Deborah Norville.  She cites a very interesting study from the journal Motivation and Emotion. In this study, a group of researchers from Reed College in Oregon studied whether one form of praise was more effective than another.  The researchers used two different types of praise: “mastery”, which they defined as praise for specific skills that the research group performed during a challenge and “social comparison”, defined as praise for doing better than the rest of the group. The research was conducted with a group of 4th and 5th grade students who were observed completing a series of difficult puzzles.

Norville summarizes the research findings: “The children praised for their efforts and skill (mastery praise) were more intrinsically motivated— that is, they were more likely to do the task for the sheer enjoyment of the exercise.  The also tended to take on harder challenges than the kids who’d been told they were better than their peers (social comparison). As the researchers explained, the mastery praise ‘focused children’s attention on building competence rather than proving it.’”  Norville continues, “Mastery praise communicates the child’s accomplishments in terms of the talent he’s honed and the expertise he’s developed, lasting accomplishments that can be built upon and enhanced in the future.”

As a mother, this information is fascinating and instructive for how to praise my kids.  It also has parallels to the workplace. I’m wondering: how much does this research finding translate to adult workers? Corporate “score cards” that highlight company performance, publishing of sales results broken out by salesperson, and employee performance reviews all have a comparative elements.  Those of us in the performance consulting world like to call this “feedback”.  Yes, it’s a form of feedback—based on comparing one’s performance to someone else’s, or in some cases, a pre-defined corporate benchmark or standard.

Let’s assume that that the results of this particular study are valid and would hold true for adults.  Then the question becomes, how do we use this information to more effectively create a motivating environment for employees? This study looked at the effects of 1-1 verbal praise.  And maybe that’s where the learning opportunity exists—when leaders offer praise to their followers, it needs to emphasize the accomplishment of a specific skill. Perhaps the examples I’ve cited don’t translate, because they are more data-driven.  I’m not convinced, though.  Many people are driven to compete, be it in overt “let’s crush the competition!!!” language, or more subtle “Nah, nah, I do that better than you do” thoughts. How can we encourage people to do their own personal best, without introducing the element having someone else “lose” or be “less than”?  Is that inherent in succeeding, or can the two co-exist?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this one . . .

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandra Wichman, MS November 6, 2009 at 11:09 am

….fascinating research and an even more provocative query……for the sake of making this interesting, allow me to question some of the findings… competition the “win” is the reward… true…often an analysis on how the win really happened is lost on the winners….THE WIN is all that (we) they are thinking about…..the “win” becomes the recognition.
Best (and scientifically supported) recognition cites specific actions/behaviors and how they impacted good/excellent results. Best practice recognition also uses a feedback venue that is welcomed and relevant to the individual…..I would hope that with performance reviews and balanced scorecards, leaders would employ skillful feedback. I guess I never “looked at” performance reviews or scorecards as competitive…in my organizations they were data reviews of all of our collaborative efforts and how we might shore up something, eliminate something else, etc. We always shared the successes…..and experienced significant levels of joy in this…..A pre-defined set of organizational goals are imperative…what do I do on a daily basis that contributes to the success of this organization and my meaningful work? I do not see that as a comparison…I see that as a “purpose”. And when my supervisor skillfully recognizes me (telling me specifically what I did to move closer to that goal and does it in a way that I see value in –privately and with two tickets to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic (NOT the Dodgers) lol! I will more than likely repeat the actions and behaviors that I was exquisitely rewarded for. So you are absolutely correct…..recognition requires very skillfully produced key actions to create motivation and self-awareness. Competition is a powerful motivator for many, many people…..but it is short-lived and short-sighted!

Mike Henry November 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Great post as always Jennifer. The results are true for adults. We all prefer being praised for specific skills or accomplishments than for those same things relative to someone else. Relative comparisons always fall short.

Which would you prefer? “Your blog is better than most of my friends’ blogs.” or “Your blog is well written and engaging. I always enjoy reading it.”

By the way, the second one is true of my opinion of this blog.


Jennifer November 6, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Sandra and Mike.

Sandra, I love how you’ve helped clarify my original post. Yes, indeed, people need a purpose and well-set expectations can set that stage. My point in this post was to ruminate on what I hear some managers call “a little ‘friendly competition'” amongst peers. Is there really such a thing?

Mike, you do such a fantastic job of getting right to the heart of it with an extremely relevant example. You are correct, I always prefer the specific praise over the comparison to others.

Beth Weisberg November 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Interesting research, interesting question you’ve posed about application to the workplace. My take is that workplaces — and the human beings who populate them — would be better off if we didn’t have to do comparison feedback. However, it sure is a fact of life in most workplaces; competition seems inbred almost. In my view, that’s a consequence of our educational system, our family structures, all that input we got while growing up. Our parents, our teachers, our coaches sure compared us to our siblings, our classmates, our teammates & more, didn’t they? The result is that, even when an organization tries to eradicate an evaluation system which smacks of “grading”, people will still do it on their own: asking “what did you get?”, then comparing it to their own results. And no matter how far from A-B-C-D-F the “rankings” get, people will still translate into a “grade” in their heads (case in point: “meets expectations” automatically becomes a C, and thus unacceptable). It’s incredibly difficult to root out. I’m reading Carol Dwecks’ Mindset:: The New Psychology of Success, and she’s done some fantastic research around all this, and poses some intriguing ways of changing people’s mindsets. I highly recommend the book, and will be interested to see the ways we come up with to try & apply it in the workplace.

Dallas Bragg November 7, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Very thought-provoking for me. As a sales manager, I do try to individually praise my people when praise is due. However, I also publish comparitive sales results. Don’t you think a healthy mixture is appropriate for the sales industry?


Thomas Waterhouse November 8, 2009 at 6:22 am

I believe that we all have internal guidance systems that smile when we operate with excellence. Allowing others the state of grace to hear that voice more clearly is the mark of good parenting, or leadership of any kind. We can do this with quiet confidence in another’s gifts, and in their being. I think a consistent state of “I love you, just because” in relation to others is the grand driver of their higher good. Carl Rogers coined the phrase “unconditional positive regard”. People deserve the respect of authority over their being, and self-evaluation is the best evaluation. Artificial comparison is destructive. I understand that some will think of my response as naive but, well, I love them anyway! While I’m a social scientist by nature and by training, I think that some things just cannot be researched due to their complexity, or spiritual nature. This is why I have such a passion for the word or concept of encouragement, and especially the worldview of “Simple Encouragement”. Jennifer, thank you for yet another thought-provoking article!


Jennifer November 8, 2009 at 10:37 am

Thanks for the book recommendation. “Mindset” sounds fascinating!

OK, you pose what I call a “juicy” question—one that’s ripe for discussion. Short answer: yes, it’s a common practice in the sales profession and is typically designed to motivate higher sales productivity. I’m not convinced it’s the best model. If you want your salespeople in competition with one another, then it’s a good route to go. If you want them to play as a team, there are better ways to do so. That’s a topic for another blog post 😉

As always, you stretch my thinking in relation to the people equation. I absolutely love the phrase “people have an internal guidance system that smiles” when they do well. What an evocative mental image.

Thanks to *all* of the contributors for stopping by this weekend. My internal guidance system has a big Cheshire grin going on right now…

working girl November 13, 2009 at 7:20 am

Great and relevant points.

Ruchi January 4, 2010 at 5:22 am

Whoa, what a thought provoking discussion.

Jennifer, you asked ” How can we encourage people to do their own personal best, without introducing the element having someone else “lose” or be “less than”? Is that inherent in succeeding, or can the two co-exist?”

I think , the reasearch itself gives cues to managers assuming it is applicable for workforce in organizations too. Followed discussion also raises an important q ” Is there a need to review the performance review systems / mechanisms prevalent in organizations ?”

What then would matter would be “how” and not “what “(grade)?

Are employees encouraged/reviewed in a manner which makes them think and reflect and take further responsibility ? Does it make them strive for more ? Does it make them reach out to set a higher goal for themselves and explore a journey of excellence ?

In situations where GOALS are standard & results measurable, competitive element can still push employees to excel even better. However, in situations where GOALS were different and individualistic, it is unfair to bring comparison into picture .

We have all known managers who apply Successful Coaching behaviors, apply concepts of Emotional Intelligence and effective communication while encouraging employees, even during giving Performance Review Feedback. ( which is inherently competitive in nature)

Look forward to diverse thoughts and broaden my own perspective.


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