Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Key To Great Feedback? Praise the Process, Not the Person

Giving good feedback to team members is quite possibly the most important – and most difficult  – part of any leader’s job. Here’s the problem:  very often, the feedback that we end up giving doesn’t seem to be all that effective.  

Even with the best intentions, feedback can easily backfire. The praise you give doesn’t lead to greater confidence. Your expert advice seems to take the wind right out of his sails. You decide to “go easy” on her, only to find her growing more anxious by the minute. And you are far from alone if you’ve had a hard time figuring out why.

Fortunately, scientific studies of motivation have identified clear, principled reasons why some types of feedback work, and others don’t. It is neither mysterious nor random. If you’ve gotten it wrong in the past (and who hasn’t?), then you can do a better job giving feedback from now on by sticking to a few simple rules:

Rule #1:  When things go wrong, keep it real.   

It’s not easy to tell someone that he screwed up, knowing it will cause him anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment. But don’t make the mistake of protecting a team member’s feelings at the expense of the truth, because without honest feedback he can’t possibly improve. Remember that negative emotions exist for a reason – they motivate us to take action to fix the problem.

Never try to make a team member feel that he wasn’t responsible for what went wrong (assuming he is, in fact, to blame), just because you don’t want to be “hard” on him. Letting him off the hook for his own mistake will rob him of a sense of personal control over his own work. Nothing is more de-motivating than feeling powerless. The short-term discomfort is nothing compared to the long-term damage that powerlessness can do.

Rule #2:  When things go wrong, fight self-doubt

We all need to believe that success is within reach, regardless of the mistakes we have made in the past. This requires us to be tactful, to share feedback without surrendering the possibility for improvement. To do this,

  • Make your advice specific. What exactly can your team member do improve? When you are a leader, helping others figure out how to do it right is just as important as letting them know what they are doing wrong.
  • Emphasize actions that she has the power to changeTalk about aspects of her performance that are under her control, like the time and effort she put into a project, or the strategic approach she used.
  • Avoid praising effort. Studies show that being complimented for “effort” after a failure not only makes people feel stupid, but also leaves them feeling incapable of reaching their goal. In these instances, it’s really best to stick to purely informational feedback – if effort isn’t the problem, figure out what is, and let the employee know. 

Rule #3: When things go right, avoid praising ability. 

I know we all like to hear how smart and talented we are, and so naturally we assume that it’s what our team members want to hear, too. Of course they do. But it’s not what they need to hear to stay motivated. 

Studies show that when we are praised for having high ability, it leaves us vulnerable to self-doubt when we encounter difficulty. If being successful means you are “a natural,” then it’s easy to conclude when you’re having a hard time that you just don’t have what it takes.

Instead, praise aspects of your employee’s performance that were under his control. Talk about his creative approach, his careful planning, his persistence and effort, his collaborative attitude. Praise the process, not the person. That way, when he runs into trouble later on, he’ll remember the process that helped him to succeed in the past, and put that knowledge to good use.


Using these three rules, you’ll be able to give your team just the right combination of hard truth, helpful guidance, and motivational pep talk to get them working at their very best.

How about you?

How do you like receiving feedback?

More insights on: Leadership

Heidi Grant Halvorson

more posts →
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
load comments (17)
  • Anthony Brown Creates

    Really good article. I’ve been actually having conversations regarding what constitutes good feedback, lately, and your points really reflected some of the needs of people who both want better feedback and those looking to give better feedback.

  • Sarah Peterson

    This is a great article! Thanks!

  • growthguided

    Its all about maintaining that trust that the tables always turn around when you are in the place of “failure” and to keep on trucking is the only solution. One step forward reinforcing yourself with the knowledge that you have been here before and managed to come out unscathed!

    Thank you for the great message.

    Let me know if you would like to do a guest post on GrowthGuided

  • JC Roxas

    This is a really great article! And I really learned many things from here. Thanks for sharing! :D

  • Anand

    This is really great article. Makes sense and very concise and clear. Key takeaway for me – Positive: Praise the process. Negative: Take the headshot. Thanks a lot.

  • LaRae Quy

    Loved the post but was really drawn in by this sentence: “Studies show that when we are praised for having high ability, it leaves us vulnerable to self-doubt when we encounter difficulty.” Something to keep in mind…I know I tend to praise others for their ability when things go right, but that same thinking would automatically pop up when something goes wrong…team members would experience self-doubt.

  • Anastasiia

    giving a right feedback and beeing able to recieve and learn from the correct feedback are both very important issues for staying motivated and for enancing workability of employees. i especially like the recommendation on concentrating on the process and not the person itself.

  • Jonc

    I would add a caveat: if you’re going to offer praising feedback, change it up a bit, don’t rely solely on textbook-given phrases. There’s only so many times one can hear “thanks for everything that you do for [the company]”–in those exact words, without derivation–that it starts losing its intended meaning and sounds more like a script without emotion. [Speaking from experience here, ymmv.]

  • downtownRtrain

    Good advice… but… When and from what management has there ever been feedback of the kind that ‘protects feelings’? The more prevalent kind is critical, personal and ruthless with errors and mishaps of any kind.

  • Belinda Summers

    Love it. Praise the process, not the person. In a way, the praise won’t be too personal and bias. A sense of professionalism will be intact in the employee’s mind. :)

  • Julia Wyant

    Very helpful and i intend to start practicing this advice today!

  • Tim

    This same theory can and should be applied to parenting. Parents who dote on their young children, telling them how “smart they are” and how “they can do anything they want” and who use the “lazy” explanation when some aspect of schoolwork is suffering, are setting their kids on a path of struggle (for the rest of their life).

    Be honest with your kid and if they’re smart and doing well in school, praise the EFFORT, not their natural smarts. And don’t freakin’ exaggerate to your kid by telling them something that makes YOU feel good to hear it (as a parent). I’ll let you in on a secret: only about 10% of parents out there have an exceptionally intelligent or creative kid, so you do the math. Most likely your kid is NOT that smart / any smarter then the next kid. Far better to tell them “there’s always going to be someone smarter or more creative out there, but it’s not a big deal. The most successful people are rarely also the smartest people. So for you to get the things you want out of life, you’re going to have to pay more attention to detail and work harder than that other kid with the big IQ or fancy test scores. Do that and everything will be good.”

    That kid is much more likely to be a success in life, then the one whose parents use test scores and other BS to justify “how bright / smart” they are. Because they WILL feel like a failure / stupid as soon as they run into something that a “bright and smart” kid should never have trouble figuring out. 100% guaranteed. And if you don’t catch it / it happens more than once, you’ll have a hell of a time convincing them that they’re not a screw up.

    New Age parenting BS needs to die. Be honest with your kids, tell them about the good and bad in life and their own qualities. Propping a kid’s ego up by telling them how smart or special they are, is a recipe for disaster. Think of your kid as a little adult who just needs things explained in simpler terms than an adult, but still needs the truth like an adult. It’s OK to give an ego boost when they need a little encouragement in sports or whatnot, but it should never be a part of everyday conversation / feedback.

  • Hatem G. Kotb

    Such a great read!

  • Dominik Schwindt

    I found that “Praise the process, not the person” wisdom in a book from Carol Dweck (titled “Selfperception” in german), though I understood it more like “Praise the behaviour, not the person”, which is a more general way of putting it. Because people can always easily change their behaviour, but it’s more complicated to change the person as a whole.

  • sunil

    when will my Managers learn how to give feedback. they dont even have data points rather exhibit stupidity

    • Sunil

      all the Managers should be PMI Certified.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,147 other followers