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 . . .