The Growth Mindset Research People Forget

In 1998, Carol Dweck, a Stanford research psychologist and the author of the book Mindset, took over 400 fifth-grade students across the country and gave them all of them a very easy IQ test.

After the test, she split the students into two groups: She praised the first group by saying, “Good job! You must be really smart”, and she praised the second group by saying, “Good job! You must have worked really hard on this.”

Two things happened next.

First, Dweck offered all the students an option: They could take an easy test or a hard test. 92% of kids who were praised for their effort chose the harder test, compared to only 33% of students who were praised for their intelligence. The effect of the feedback was simple: Those praised for intelligence felt the need to protect their identity by continuing to appear smart, but those praised for their effort felt safe and encouraged enough to take on new challenges.

Second, Dweck gave all the students another really easy test. The results were astonishing to the researchers: The scores of those praised for intelligence dropped by 20%, while the scores of those praised for their effort rose by 30%.

Not only did the type of praise impact their mindset; it quickly impacted their performance!

The Little Things

Dweck’s research shows us the impact of just changing a few words. Being intentional in our language is important! Offering great feedback is critical—not only in coaching and leadership, but in all our relationships. The challenge is to offer feedback in a way that encourages growth and nurtures the relationship.

Sadly, our feedback is often laced with a lot of misinformation and poor habits. Far too often, we think, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way!” But, there is a huge gap between what science and experience teaches us, and how we actually give feedback!

Avoid the Four Pitfalls of Feedback

  1. General Feedback: I love this quote from the band teacher, Terence Fletcher, in the movie Whiplash: “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘Good job!’” To that end, how often do we say things like:
    • “Nice kick!”
    • “Good shot!”
    • “Great swing!”
    • “Work harder!
    • “Play smarter!”

It does not matter whether it is positive or negative; general feedback is not helpful but is often detrimental. Author and child psychologist Alfie Kohn argues that praise like “good job” is psychologically harmful to development (Read more here). Just reflect on your own experience with feedback: How did you respond the last time someone told you, “good job”? Typically, it either washes over us, or we deflect it. We don’t soak it up. 

2. Praising Ability and Achievement: As Dweck’s research revealed, praising ability or achievement negatively impacts the recipient’s mindset and performance. But, there is something else that is arguably more harmful: It pushes people towards the performance-identity trap, in which they begin to tie their identity and self-worth to what they do, not who they are as people. No athlete or coach is immune to this trap. In fact, the higher they rise in the world of sports, the more dangerous this trap becomes (Read more here). Coaches and parents often struggle with this. They wonder, “So, can I not be happy when players do well?” In a previous article (Praise Effort, Celebrate Achievement), I have written more about how to handle these moments and effectively communicate when they occur.

3. B.S. Sandwich Feedback: Sadly, giving tough feedback just isn’t that easy. No matter how much you dress it up, people still know they are eating sh*t. I’ve lost count of the number of coaching and education classes in which sandwich feedback (+-+) has been suggested. Research has extensively shown it both hides criticism and discredits positive feedback. Essentially, people only pay attention to either the positive or the negative, or they don’t pay attention at all. Don’t believe me? Check out the research: The Sandwich Feedback, Not Very Tasty and The Sandwich Approach Undermines Your Feedback.

4. Judgmental Feedback: In Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code, he discusses feedback from the world’s best pilots. In the aviation world, it is called “notifications”: “A notification is not an order or a command. It provides context, telling of something noticed, placing a spotlight on one discrete element of the world. Notifications are the humblest and most primitive form of communication, the equivalent of a child’s finger-point: I see this. Unlike commands, they carry unspoken questions: ‘Do you agree? What else do you see?’ In a typical landing or takeoff, a proficient crew averages 20 notifications per minute.” So, avoid judgmental feedback; just share what you observe!

5. Feedback Before the Relationship: Psychological research in the last decade has been pretty illuminating! Harvard researchers have proven that peer-to-peer negative feedback can only work when the recipient truly feels valued by the giver (Read more here). We need to send consistent signals to our players that they are valued for who they are as people. We need to form connections before we can challenge them.

Retrain Yourself

You will fall back into these feedback traps, without a doubt! Start to become self-aware of yourself when you do communicate in these ways. Try recording each practice or meeting and listening to the tape later. Give yourself reminders before practice, put them in your practice plan, and review these areas after practice, as well.

I have a whole chapter about feedback in my book, Calling Up: Discovering Your Journey to Transformational Leadership, which gives you a variety of ways to retrain yourself in this area. So, be sure to order your copy today!