To help people perform better, don’t praise them for their ability, encourage them for their hard work.

When I tell people about Freakonomics I think they usually assume it’s some kind of circus sideshow that involves math. It’s actually one of the best podcasts (and books) to explore the hidden side of, well, pretty much everything. The show brings great reporting and an economist's analytical skills to topics like payday loans, baby names, sleep, cheating, drugs, parenting and a lot more.

This month is all about self-improvement and today I listened to a show on becoming more productive, or at least, more effective (those aren’t always the same thing). Here was the big takeaway for me from today’s episode:

To help people perform better, don’t praise them for their ability, encourage them for their hard work.

A Columbia University study found that children who were praised by teachers for being smart had decreased performance while children who were praised for hard work increased performance.

This indictment of ability also led children praised for intelligence to display more negative responses in terms of lower levels of task persistence, task enjoyment, and performance than their counterparts, who received commendations for effort.

The Marine Corps built this concept into their training program. Instead of praising people for natural talent, they only praise for hard work. As told on Freakonomics:

So this drill sergeant told me that he never tells someone who’s a natural athlete that they just ran a good race. He only tells, like, the small, kind of, wimpy kids that they just did a great job running. The Corps, as a whole, never tells anyone that there’s such a thing as natural-born leaders. Because that implies that you don’t have any control over whether you’re a leader or not. Instead, what they do is they compliment shy people who take a leadership role. And they say to them, ‘Look, I know it was hard for you to do that, but you did a great job.’

What this tells me as a parent is that I need to be careful about the positive reinforcement I give my kids. Dr. Kevin Leman writes about this and calls it The Dark Side of Praise. He says, “It’s not, ‘Oh, what a wonderful kid you are.’ It’s, ‘Your effort, your extra studying has really paid off.’ That is the difference between praise & reward, and true parental encouragement.”

As a pastor, this informs how I interact with and encourage the people and staff in my church. I think people tend to praise disproportionately for ability rather than hard work. “You’re such a great singer!” “You’re a gifted communicator!”

We know that gifts and abilities come from God, so praising people for these is simply elevating the wrong person.

At the same time, we should encourage people not for their abilities but for how they use them and how hard they work in the process. The studies demonstrate that hard work and persistence beats aptitude every day. God’s Word tells us to work hard because ultimately we work for the Lord, not for people (Col. 3:23).

If you want to help people grow, don’t praise them for their abilities, encourage them for their hard work!

Adam Bowers Profile

Adam Bowers

Disciple of Jesus, husband of Jenny, father of 3 awesome kids, Senior Pastor at First Free Church, passionate about growing God's kingdom by developing influencers for Jesus.I still use parts of this site for various ministry purposes even though I haven't written a blog post in a long time!