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Are You Giving The Right Message With Your Leadership?

When it comes to praise, it's not just how often leaders give it, but also what kind. Discover how this difference can help to empower your employees.

A few weeks ago, my friend Whitney Johnson wrote a piece around perceptual biases that was inspired by something her daughter experienced in school one day. As Whitney describes in her piece, her daughter gave a presentation in one of her classes, a presentation she had spent much time and effort researching and practising. After she was done, her teacher commented “that was pretty good.”

Soon after, one of her male classmates stood up to give his presentation. From her daughter’s perspective, this classmate’s presentation was a lot less organized and he wasn’t as articulate. But when he finished his presentation, the teacher remarked “Great job”.

Reading about the experience Whitney’s daughter had at her school reminded me of a study done by researchers at the University of Chicago and Stanford University which found that while parents give an equal amount of praise to both girls and boys, they differ significantly in the type of praise they provide based on the gender of their child.

What the researchers found was that parents were more likely to praise a boy for his efforts or actions (“you really worked hard on that”) while girls were praised more in terms of who they are (“you’re so smart”).

The researchers found that this discrepancy in giving girls more what they call “person praise” over “process praise” leaves them vulnerable to thinking that if they don’t do well on a test or on an assignment, it’s a reflection more of the limits of their intelligence or abilities than on the level of effort they needed to give in order to succeed.

Although this study – and what Whitney’s daughter experienced at school – reveal some of the biases that both men and women demonstrate towards girls, and its impact on how girls view their accomplishments, I’d like to pivot here and focus on what this reveals about the way we communicate and in particular, what messages we’re really imparting to those we lead.

One thing that’s abundantly clear from the various studies on employee engagement and organizational success is that today’s leaders need to make a greater effort building lines of communication with those they lead.

Embedded within those lines of communication is not only the need to foster and build relationships with those under our care, but also the requirement that we use these opportunities to provide feedback that will help our employees to better understand both what’s required of them and what we value in their contributions.

Going back to the study I mentioned above, the researchers found that when parents focused on giving more “process praise” over “person praise”, their children grew up being more open to facing challenges and found more ways to overcome difficult problems. These children also came to see their intelligence as something that they could grow by doing hard work.

Although the children given more “person praise” than “process praise” didn’t demonstrate any negative effects from this kind of feedback, their perception about their intelligence and abilities was that it was more a fixed point than something that could be expanded and stretched.

In a previous piece about communication and feedback, I wrote how feedback shouldn’t simply be something that tells an employee where they stand – of whether they’re doing a good or bad job. Instead, it needs to be something that makes them hungry to do more, regardless of how well or in need of improvement they may be.

Of course, in the current faster pace by which we now have to do things, it is easy for us to give a quick nod or a thumbs-up with a cursory “good job” to those who we know we can count on to deliver while we focus more on those needing more support to bring their A-game to the table.

But what we can learn from this study’s findings is that praise is not simply telling someone they did a good job; it’s reinforcing their drive to do better [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

The raison d’être that should drive each leader out there today is not simply hitting their quarterly targets. Rather, leaders should ask themselves how do I empower my employees to bring their best selves to work? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]

That question, of course, demands a greater sense of intentionality on our part – that we’re not simply walking through the motions of what it takes to be a good leader for those under our care.

Indeed, as this study reveals, it’s not just what we say but what we make people focus on in terms of their abilities and accomplishments that has the biggest impact on whether we can inspire them to do more. To welcome the inevitable challenges and obstacles they’ll face as opportunities to push themselves and gain a better understanding of what they’re truly capable of – if not also what they need to work on going forward.

And the beauty of this study’s findings is that the ability to do such exists in each of us. After all, all that’s required to accomplish this is our becoming more mindful of not just whether we offer enough praise, but whether we recognize what kind of praise we give to those under our care.

In other words, when we praise our employees, is it the kind of praise that focuses more on the efforts our employees make to help our organization succeed and thrive? Or does the focus of our praise revolve more around who they are? Or perhaps more accurately, how we choose to perceive them?

We often talk in leadership about paying attention as much to how we communicate as we do to what we communicate. In sharing the findings from this study, what I want to remind leaders – and perhaps even parents out there reading this piece – is that many times this notion reflects the subtle contexts that we impart through our words.

Consider, in that vein, those moments where we say something to our employees either as a form of feedback or as a way to better engage our employees. In some cases, we might see that we’re getting the desired response. In others, though, we can be left shaking our heads in frustration because it seems as though nothing we do is enough to get them on board and motivated to do the task at hand.

How often in those moments when we feel that we’re not getting through to our employees do we give ourselves the permission to take a step back and evaluate how the context of our message is being received? Do we take the time to ascertain whether we are in fact encouraging or supporting our employee’s efforts to succeed, or to believe in their abilities to overcome the challenges before them?

Or are we simply offering that kind of praise that’s tied more to the person or to their circumstances? That form of praise which serves only to limit rather than expand their perception of what they can achieve?

Again, it’s not just what we say, but what we focus on that impacts how our employees view their potential [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. And as leaders, that’s the responsibility each of us accepts when we take the helm to lead others

In other words, it’s not just about hitting our numbers or reaching our targets, but it’s also about helping those we lead to recognize that there is always something more they can do. Something more that they can learn from in order to become stronger contributors to our shared purpose.

Seen from that light, praise is not just something that’s nice to do to make others feel good about their accomplishments. It’s also a great way to help others believe in their potential of what they can become and how today is just the beginning of that journey.


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