Outcome or Effort, Which Should You Reward?

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You should praise your children

Every parent will tell you that you should applaud your children.  Praising them for a job well done and telling them how clever they are builds confidence and self esteem.

Or does it? In 1990’s Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck of Columbia University decided to find out.

The experiment

The study worked with ten to twelve year-old children at three schools. The researchers asked the children to complete three sets of tests.

At the end of the first test the researchers split the children into two groups at random and both groups were praised:

  • Half the children were praised for their performance. “You must be smart at these problems”.
  • Half were praised for their effort. “You must have worked hard at these problems”.

The children were then asked to chose which type of test they would like to do next.  The choice was:



  • A simple test — problems that are pretty easy so you will do well
  • A harder test — problems that you will learn a lot from even though you won’t look so smart

But before they got to do their chosen test the children were all given a second, harder test. One usually taken by children two years older.  At the end of this second test the researchers told all the children that they had performed “a lot worse”. They had only solved half of the questions that they answered.

After this negative feedback, the children rated how much they enjoyed the problems and how much they wanted to carry on.

Finally they worked through their chosen – third — set of questions.

The results

When offered a choice of tests to take, 67% of the children who were told they were clever opted to take the easy test. A test that showed how well they could perform.  Conversely, 92% of the children who were told they must be hard-working chose the hard test. The one where they would learn more.

When asked what they thought of the final test, the “hard-working” children said that they enjoyed it. The “clever” children said that they didn’t.

In the last test — after they had received negative feedback — the “hard-working” children were more persistent. They answered an average of six and a quarter of the ten questions compared to the “clever” children’s four and a half.

There is more

The researchers carried out repeat experiments with other variables thrown into the mix. 

  • “Clever” children were three times more likely to lie about their scores than the “hard-working” children. 
  • “Clever” children were three times more interested in the results of their peers than “hard-working” children.
  • “Hard-working” children were three times more interested in learning new problem solving strategies than “clever” children.

Interpretation

If you reward your children for working hard they understand how to improve. They realise that performance isn’t a fixed outcome and that they can improve their scores by persistence and trying new approaches.

If you tell your children that they are smart they think that performance is down to innate ability so can’t be improved on. So, to keep their scores high they will pick easy problems and lie about their performance.

It is more powerful to take an interest in a child’s behaviour and tell them what they did well than just complement them on the outcome. If a child knows what they did well they can improve on it and do it again. 

Complements based on the outcome don’t give the child anything to build upon.

Are children and adults so different?

When you are going through your annual round of appraisal writing where does all the effort go? 

  • Do you focus on outcomes, positioning your staff and yourself as life’s winners, the “smart” kids? 
  • Does all your effort go into the inputs, how hard your staff tried, what they did well and what they can learn from, the “hard-working” kids?


Which holds more sway in your annual validation process, what your staff did or how they did it?

Learning from ten year-olds

If your staff fudge their results and opt for the easy objectives it might just be the way that they are managed that causes the problem.

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Read the original research paper

Image by Will Kay

5 COMMENTS

  1. Terrific post. I would add that fundamental attribution errors and pay-for-performance schemes further complicate matters. As Deming said, 96% of all issues are systemic and are therefore beyond the control of workers. Yet conventional business practices persist. It’s been over 40 years since Deming advised, “Manage process; lead people,” and sadly little has changed.

  2. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing James.

    I suspect that the principles are no different for adults. I remember a study around the same time – perhaps the same one – identifying that statements like, “You did that very well,” were perceived as more credible than statements like, “You are very good at that.”

    It’s a great reminder for leaders. Perhaps also a clue that we should be focusing our performance metrics on how things are done instead of what things are done?

    Thanks again!

  3. Very interesting on a couple of fronts. I wonder if this partially explains why the guy (or gal) who thinks they are the smartest guy (or gal) in the room is usually disliked. It also ties to the difference between coaching and counseling. Many managers don’t know the difference and end up doing their employees more harm than good. Coaching is used in situations where the employee wants to do the work but can’t do it without additional skills training and/or more knowledge. Coaching is patient. You counsel an employee who can do the work, but just won’t. Counseling is impatient. Coaching takes time. With counseling you state: 1. Here is the problem. 2. Here is what must be done about he problem. 3. Here is how long you have. 4. Here is what is going to happen if you don’t solve the problem. I’ll bet hard working children (and the employees they grow into get more coaching than counseling. Clever folks, on the other hand, probably get more counseling than coaching – or should. When I first read the question about outcome vs. effort – I immediately thought outcome over effort. Whoops.

  4. Appreciate the way you have articulated this post. Actually, we all are in a race to achieve the goal and we don’t give the value to the process but we find the clever ways to achieve the same. The so-called “cleavers” win the race and got all the appreciation but the hard workers, who are actually working with an approach or process to make it sustainable, get lost somewhere in the era of the fast moving world. We focus more on results rather than the process to achieve the same. This is a major problem we are facing in today’s world.

  5. Interesting article! I come from a very traditional Asian culture which hard to get praise by parents or my manager unless you are doing exceptionally well. While I have worked in US company for 25 years and I noticed that no matter what you did, we received a compliment easily. This is the way of cultural differences. Though I know people like to hear appreciation than what you did wrong, once we used to hear “good word”, we will take it for granted without real motivation. At the same time, we also don’t like to listen people tell you what you need to improve all the times which has reverted the value of role I take. So as a leader, how to balance both “Smart and Hard work” effort are important.

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