Combating Perfectionism Requires A Second Look At How We Give Compliments

Dr. Carol Dweck is an expert on growth and fixed mindsets.

In her book Growth Mindset, she shares a story from her daughter’s preschool days. She was elbow deep in glue during craft time when her teacher commented jovially upon seeing the chaos, “You’re a mess.” To which her daughter replied, “I’m not a mess. I made a mess but I’m not a mess.”

This simple exchange illustrates a fixed mindset, the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and a growth mindset that you can develop beyond your current limitations depending on your invested time and effort.

Creating a culture that supports a growth mindset is much more challenging than how it appears at face value for a variety of reason that HBR outlines but I won’t get into here.

However, an important piece of that puzzle is how compliments are given in the workplace.

An interesting study that illustrates this is two groups of students that where given the same test. One group was told, you’re smart. The other group was told, you’re hard workers.

The students who were told they were smart, panicked when they encountered a problem they couldn’t solve. After all, smart kids don’t struggle.

Consider when complimenting others, are you likely to comment on the specific work, or who they are as a person (you’re awesome, you rock!)?

And although those compliments feel good to give and receive in the moment, they lay traps for future innovation.

How many times have you thought, I’m smart, I can’t tell anyone I failed?

Building a growth mindset cultures that fights against the poison of perfection requires an eye towards gives specific compliments.

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