Monday, April 6, 2009

Great Leaders Reward Effort, Not Just Achievement

Do you ever feel like a loser when you miss a goal? Research from Professor Lambert says you shouldn’t IF you learn the "lesson of effort." (1) Her recent rat experiment affirms that when you applaud effort (i.e., commitment to the goal) and not just achievement, you are well on your way to leadership success.


Professor Lambert examined effort by studying two groups of rats. One group was put in a cage with mounds of dirt in it. Buried beneath these mounds were Froot Loops -- the treat of choice for hungry rats. Over a five-week period, these ‘worker’ rats learned to dig for their treats. In an identical cage, a second group of rats received their Froot Loops free. These ‘trust-fund’ rats didn't have to dig or work for their food. After the five weeks, researchers placed a screen ball, with Froot Loops in the middle of the ball, into each cage. The rats could see and smell, but they couldn't reach, the Froot Loops.

Which group do you think worked hardest to obtain the food? The worker group spent 60% more time and made 30% more novel attempts to get the Froot Loops. Moral of this story: rewarding effort, not just goal achievement, is crucial to increasing commitment. How often do you praise your team’s effort?

Just as the media spends a disproportionate amount of time praising only Olympic gold medal winners, Professor Lambert and other scientists, remind us that most leaders (and parents) spend too much time rewarding only achievement and not enough applauding effort. (2)

Praising only goal achievement teaches employees not to try or experiment unless they are sure of success. Can you imagine a gymnast refusing to try a new routine because she feared failure? You don’t become an Olympian unless you have a coach who helps you develop a ‘growth mindset.’ Professor Carroll Dweck’s summarized 30 years of scientific investigation by declaring we should “teach people to have a growth mindset, which encourages a focus on effort rather than intelligence or talent.” (3)

Here is what praising effort and a growth mindset sounds like:

- Thanks for working so hard on this project. I like the way you are collaborating with those difficult, silo-oriented departments.

- I value how you tried to work it out with that demanding customer. Your desire to handle conflict productively is very admirable.

- These protocols are complex, and I appreciate your effort. What can I do to help?

- I know your assignment didn't go as planned. Let's focus on what you learned and will do differently next time.

- "Please fail very quickly, so that you can try again." Eric Schmidt, Google CEO (4)

Do you see the intention here? You're praising effort and experimentation now because you want more of it in the future. What you appreciate appreciates. This does not mean you don't reward achievement, it means you don't reward ONLY achievement. How can you increase effort by celebrating it more frequently?

Keep eXpanding,


1. Kelly Lambert; Depressingly Easy, Scientific American Mind, August/September 2008.

2. Carol Dweck; The Secret to Raising Smart Kids; Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008.

3. Ibid, page 38.

4. Bala Iyer and Thomas Davenport; Reverse Engineering Google's Innovation Machine, Harvard Business Review, April 2008, pages 59 – 68.

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