Are You Making This Gratitude Mistake?

A 'personal' pat on the back cartoon image.

Do compliments like “Great job.  Gosh you’re talented!” or “Thanks for your help.  You’re so clever!” roll off your tongue throughout the day? It’s hard to imagine these expressions of gratitude could be short-changing anyone.   But it turns out these are some of the worst ways to express appreciation.

Expressions like “you’re so clever,” which compliment what someone can do, are ability-based praise. Hearing ability-based praise feels nice, but it only scratches the surface of what we actually crave.

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University suggests that we offer people effort-based praise. Try: “Thanks for having the persistence to see through this problem and helping me find an answer” instead, mentioning what they have accomplished.

Dweck’s research has found that when most people are praised for their ability, it sparks a “fixed mindset” that causes them to reject challenges and learning opportunities for fear these tests might call their talents into question. Yet when most people are praised for the effort they make, it sparks a “growth mindset” that leads them to relish taking on challenging new tasks they can learn from.

Dweck’s research has particularly focused on children. She argues they have been overly appreciated by the self-esteem movement for ability over effort, making them less resilient in the face of failure. 

She also notes these effects in adults, however, with ability-based praise making us less willing to take the initiative, see through difficult tasks, struggle and learn something new, be undaunted by setbacks and be open to act on criticism.

So the next time you thank people – young or old – take a few extra seconds to offer them effort-based praise. Be specific about what you appreciated and why it was of value.  You might be surprised by the genuine delight spreading across their faces.


Michelle McQuaid, a born and raised Australian girl, is a best-selling author, workplace wellbeing teacher and playful change activator.

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