Mark Ford

From Mark Ford, editor, Creating Wealth: If you want to get the most out of your employees (or your students, children, committee members, etc.), be careful about accolades.

Most of us have been raised in cultures where success is praised and failure is condemned. It begins when we are toddlers, trying to get up on our feet, and it continues into school, sports, and the workplace.

Rewarding success and punishing failure seems perfectly logical. Human beings, we believe, are wired to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, and extinguish behaviors that are punished.

But consider this: In most competitive learning experiences, there is only a minority of winners. When you praise this minority for winning, you simultaneously condemn the majority for not winning.

The few who are always at the top thrive in this sort of culture (and fall to utter shambles when they don’t find themselves at the top). But the others gradually turn off to trying.

The repeated exposure to negative sanctions creates a mindset that would rather not try than try and fail.

This is not the sort of idea I would normally go for. I am a big believer in demanding more from employees, students, and children. I think coddling people makes them weak.

But when I read a powerful Scientific American article about this idea, I also heard a voice inside my head that said, “You know, this is true.”

I have that “better not to try than to try and fail” mindset toward many things: golf, chess, and computer technology, to name three. When I have a problem in these areas, I spend 15 seconds trying and then give up. But in the back of my mind, I know that if I persisted, I could succeed.

If you want the best performance from an employee (or student or child), do not praise or punish the outcome. Praise the process.

Don’t reward an employee for completing a particular project you’ve given him. Praise him while he’s doing it for his persistence and determination.