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Motivating through praise

Tony Berry

Faculty Blog

“Praise, when given by a respected leader, motivates followers toward even better performance.” Or does it?

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck believes that, if we praise the right thing, praise is an important motivator. If we get it wrong, praise might even be demotivating. She works from the idea that we have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

With a fixed mindset, we view our abilities as traits which are unchanging and we are likely to go through life avoiding situations where we might fail. Conversely, with a growth mindset, we see ourselves as a work in progress and are therefore more likely to pursue opportunities and challenges.

Dweck also reports that we can change: if we have a fixed mindset, we can adopt a growth mindset.

Here is where leadership comes in. It appears that if you praise a characteristic or trait rather than the work process, it could adversely affect the individual’s efforts toward greater success. Also, it seems that when followers fail and have been praised for a trait (such as their intelligence), he/she is more likely to be demotivated.

When, following a success, praise is given for that innate ability, (“You are amazing, you made that look effortless!”) there may be a hidden corollary for the person when they are not successful: “I didn’t succeed, I may not be amazing after all.” Conversely when unsuccessful, but with having their effort praised, (“Your hard work was really good!”), the follower’s internal message will more likely be, “I was not successful this time, but I know if I work harder, I can do it.”

In a recent Ted Talk Dweck compared fixed with growth mindsets; for those with fixed mindsets, she found that, “instead of luxuriating in the power of yet, they were gripped in the tyranny of now.”

As leaders, this appears to be an important distinction as we lead and develop our followers, be it in our daily interactions or through a more formal appraisal and development process. Both provide a forum for understanding and developing our growth mindsets with our employees.

In short, leaders are most effective when they praise what employees can change or develop rather than their traits. And employees are most effective when they receive that praise within a growth mindset.

Footnote: This post has been co-authored by Tony Berry and Dick Bunning.