February 20th, 2013 | 1:00 pm

The Praise Paradox: Why Praise Doesn’t Always Lead to Confidence

filed under Expert Answers

Contributed by Tara Sophia Mohr

Growing up, I was often told I was a “great writer.” In school, when I handed in essays, short stories, or research papers, I usually got them back with an A at the top. I even won writing contests and awards.

For a while, I felt confident about my abilities. Yet as time went on, particularly through college and graduate school, I started feeling more and more insecure about my writing ability. When I landed in elite writing workshops at a top university, the negative feedback I got from professors was hard to recover from. Did it mean I wasn’t a good writer after all? Eventually, I became too overcome by insecurity to enjoy writing or to write much at all.

My story is a common one. Many women find themselves full of paralyzing self-doubt about the very things they’ve been praised for. It’s the opposite of what we’d expect. What’s going on here?

Research into Praise

New, pioneering research by Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck illuminates how and why this happens.

Dweck has discovered that children praised for their innate abilities (“You are so smart!”, “You are so good at writing!”, “You are so good at math!”, etc.) become reluctant—even unwilling—to take on a next, more challenging task in the skill area they’ve been praised in.

In her book, Mindset, Dweck explains that these children are afraid of failing and therefore disproving the praise they’ve received. In other words, a next, more challenging test might show that they weren’t really so smart or as good at math.

Children praised for their effort (“Wow, you worked so hard on that!” or “Wow, good job putting in all that effort!”) are eager to jump into a next, more challenging task. They’ve learned that struggling and putting in significant effort is a good thing – not a sign of inadequate talent.

High Achieving Women

When I share this research with groups of women, there are always gasps and nods of recognition around the room. Many high achieving women have had this puzzling experience—not just as children, but as adults. They’ve been highly praised in some particular ability and skill, they’ve been known as “good at it,” but they end up feeling nervous about screwing up in that area, or feeling like they don’t really deserve the praise.

Women who grew up getting straight As and gold stars in school often come away with the impression that those grades are proof of their intelligence and competence – and even their self-worth. When they need to take on more challenging tasks or new skills, when they get into more competitive environments, when they have to deal with lots of negative feedback or with bosses who never give praise, their basic confidence in their intelligence and competence is affected.

That’s why in the work I do with women we work on “unhooking from praise” – becoming less dependent on it.

Why is this so important? There are a number of reasons. To have a knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park career, you’ll sometimes need to make decisions that are controversial, that depart from the status quo in your industry or your company – and if you are dependent on praise, that will be near impossible for you to do. Plus, to grow in your career, you’ll need to again and again to be a beginner at new types of tasks. How can you develop the new skills required with new levels of responsibility if you can’t feel good about yourself during that period of being a poor or average performer – when you are on your way to mastery but not there yet?

If you are recognizing that the dark side of praise is holding you back in your career, here’s what to do next:

  • Take the focus off praise. Focus less on how others are receiving your work and refocus on your own process of working hard to develop your abilities. Remember that performance doesn’t come from innate ability – it comes from doing the hard work that develops ability.
  • Give your own gold stars! Don’t wait for a boss or peer who understands this! Start praising and affirming yourself for working hard on tasks/subjects that are new or unfamiliar to you. Make a habit of mastering new skills or areas of knowledge in your professional and personal life. Make this something you value in yourself and practice regularly.
  • Educate your colleagues and your team and make sure your team culture rewards people for developing new skills and abilities. Make sure you give praise for effort and hard work more than for innate abilities to the people who work for and with you. Remember, this isn’t about simply giving out “A’s for effort” and being wishy-washy about performance. It’s about recognizing that performance levels and even “talent” levels can be dramatically changed through hard work.

How has the dark side of praise impacted your career? Let us know in the comments.

Tara Sophia Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. The creator of the Playing Big leadership program for women, Tara is a columnist for Huffington Post and has been featured on The Today Show, CNN.com, USA Today, MoreMagazine.com, and in numerous other publications. Click here to get her free download, the 10 Rules for Brilliant Women Workbook.

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