What’s the biggest motivation mistake managers (and parents and teachers make?) It starts with 3 little words – “do your best.” These three little words are supposed to inspire you, to encourage you, to propel you on to greatness.

self motivationThe problem is that “doing your best” doesn’t help improve performance. It’s a lousy motivator. For many people it sustains the status quo and merely prevents a loss of self-esteem.  It doesn’t help you know what to do or how to do it better.  It’s vague. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.

This comes from the research of world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. She  reveals why many managers (as well as parents and teachers) fail at motivating others. Dweck suggests that motivation does not increase with increased levels of generic praise. Instead it tends to dip!

The better approach to motivating yourself and others is to set “mastery” goals – specific but realistic goals that force you to stretch yourself. When pursuing mastery goals, people don’t look for validation, they seek improvement. Research has proven that mastery goals force you to concentrate on the how and the why.

For example, praising an employee for how smart, detail-oriented, and friendly he is infers some innate fixed trait, a “gift” of talent. His or her motivation stems from trying to meet expectations. When we praise for smartness or friendliness, we tell employees that’s the name of the game.

Praising an individual instead for how he worked or an accomplishment is praise for effort.  When we praise for effort, employees tend to work harder.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, explains this in more detail. She writes “how smart you are will influence the extent to which you experience something as difficult but it says nothing about how you deal with difficulty when it happens. It says nothing about whether you will be persistent and determined or feel overwhelmed or helpless.”

Praising individual qualities it seems creates an urgency to prove him-or herself over and over again. If the individual fails to live up to the hype, it means that maybe the employee isn’t so smart, friendly, or useful. Failure forces the individual to question his identity. He evaluates opportunity and problems in terms of probability of success or failure, looking smart or dumb, being accepted or rejected, being a winner or loser.  Personal goals are based on individual accomplishments, not team or company outcomes.   He begins to convince himself and others that he has a royal flush when he’s secretly worried it’s a pair of tens.

For the individual fixated on his innate strengths, risk and effort are two things that might reveal inadequacies. It is remarkable how many people with this fixed mindset don’t believe in effort. People with fixed mindset of raw talent quickly fear challenge and devalue effort.

By focusing instead on effort or accomplishment, the hand you are dealt is just the starting point.  The passion, the will, and ambition to stretch yourself and stick to something, even if it’s not going well, is the hallmark of what Dweck calls the growth, or mastery, mindset.

Individuals with a growth mindset don’t look for excuses when they fail. One of Dweck’s studies compared fixed and growth mindset students. Forty percent of participants with fixed mindset preferred lying about test results when asked to disclose negative scores in a test.  Fixed mindset people don’t want to expose their deficiencies and inadequacies. So they prefer to lie or make excuses.

Success is a by-product of an employee’s passion and enthusiasm for what he or she is doing. By creating a culture where employees believe that experience and age equates to talent, they come to believe that they are more talented than they really are.  They develop a fixed mindset. They work in a culture where many managers become obsessed with identifying proven “talent.” Talented workers, especially managers and executives, are worshipped.  By doing so, failure becomes unacceptable. Mistakes are buried and lies created to protect the image.  It creates a culture that cannot correct itself even when falling into the black hole.

Managers relying on past accomplishments, education, and experience to hire – things that validate some success in the past – view future success by looking in the rear view mirror. It is a motivation mistake managers must avoid. They judge employees as competent or incompetent based on past performance which is becoming a poor predictor of future performance.

In the game where future success is the name of the game, understanding the mindset of employee as well as the quality of motivation is the key. Management must begin to think carefully about what traits distinguish high potentials who flourish and those that peak and fall into mediocrity; to think carefully if the individual was productive and effective because of some distinguishable skill set and unique qualities or was success merely circumstantial; to think carefully if the high potential employee has the passion to achieve, the resilience to persevere, and the ability to focus on getting better and not just doing good enough.

An employee motivation mistake can be costly. Think carefully about what employee characteristics and qualities you seek, what messages you send and are giving. Focus on abilities and motivation that resulted in and will result in continuous effort, not validation of innate talent.