When my son came home with straight A’s, I congratulated him on the success. That was a mistake, because what gets rewarded get’s focused on. While at first blush, getting straight A’s seems like the exact thing I should praise, it’s not. The objective is that he maintains the effort and emotional muscle required to get straight A’s.
By praising my son on his grades, I set an expectation of straight A’s and not hard effort. So, if the next go around he doesn’t great straight A’s, it becomes a simple excuse of “bad teachers” or “no one else got straight A’s.” If I had praised his hard work, then that would become his focus. And with it, external circumstances, would become less relevant.
In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains when it comes to your employees, don’t praise the outcomes, praise the effort it took them to get there. Specific feedback (“You got all the negotiation points properly documented in the contract”) and praise about the effort (“I appreciate all the time and attention to detail you put into the contract”), will be far more motivationally effective than outcome praise (“Great job getting the straight A’s… er… uh… I mean, the deal”).