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The effort effect

If you manage any people or if you are a parent (which is a form of managing people), drop everything and read The Effort Effect. This is an article about Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. It examines her thirty-year study of why some some people excel and others don’t. (Hint: the answer is not “God-given talent.”)

The article postulates that people have two kinds of mindsets: growth or fixed. People with the growth mindset view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are “set” as either good or bad. The issue is that the good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything.

She recently released a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I have not yet read it, but I ordered it as soon as I read this article. I can’t imagine not liking it.

To provide a further taste of the article and her work, here is a sidebar from the article called “What Do We Tell the Kids?” I took the liberty of adding [employee] to show the relevance of this article to business.

You have a bright child [employee], and you want her to succeed. You should tell her how smart she is, right?

That’s what 85 percent of the parents Dweck surveyed said. Her research on fifth graders shows otherwise. Labels, even though positive, can be harmful. They may instill a fixed mind-set and all the baggage that goes with it, from performance anxiety to a tendency to give up quickly. Well-meaning words can sap children’s [employee’s] motivation and enjoyment of learning and undermine their performance. While Dweck’s study focused on intelligence praise, she says her conclusions hold true for all talents and abilities.

Here are Dweck’s tips from Mindset:
  • Listen to what you say to your kids [employees], with an ear toward the messages you’re sending about mind-set.
  • Instead of praising children’s [employee’s] intelligence or talent, focus on the processes they used.
    • Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
    • Example: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
    • Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”
  • When your child [employee] messes up, give constructive criticism—feedback that helps the child [employee] understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.
  • Pay attention to the goals you set for your children [employees]; having innate talent is not a goal, but expanding skills and knowledge is.
  • Don’t worry about praising your children [employees] for their inherent goodness, though. It’s important for children [employees] to learn they’re basically good and that their parents love them unconditionally, Dweck says. “The problem arises when parents praise children [employees] in a way that makes them feel that they’re good and love-worthy only when they behave in particular ways that please the parents.”

Here’s some food for thought: perhaps this explains the inexorable march toward mediocrity of many (temporarily) great companies. Let’s say a startup is hot. It ships something great, and it achieves success. Thus, it’s able to attract the best, brightest, and most talented. These people have been told they’re the best since childhood. Indeed, being hired by the hot company is “proof” that they are the A and A+ players; in fact, the company is so hot that it can out-recruit Google and Microsoft.

Unfortunately, they develop a fixed mindset that they’re the most talented, and they think that continued success is a right. Problems arise because pure talent only works as long as the going is easy. Furthermore, they don’t take risks because failure would harm their image of being the best, brightest, and most talented. When they do fail, they deny it or attribute it to anything but their shortcomings.

And this is the beginning of the end.

Photo: Alexindigo

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