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Two things we learnt from children’s development

20 Sept 2017

Feedback may be a gift, but it’s a tricky thing to get right. In fact, in many cases it does more harm than good. Interestingly, there are number of parallels between what helps and hinders our development as children and as adults. Here are two examples.

Two things we learnt from children’s development

Two things we learnt from children’s development, and what it means for how managers give feedback to encourage development in the workplace, are outlined in this month’s blog post.

Toxic Praise

Praising kids for being smart can backfire. It may sound odd, but studies going as far back as the 1980s have shown that when children are praised for intelligence instead of effort, they do worse on academic tasks. This is because making children think that their achievement was a result of something they are, rather than something they did, does not encourage the right mindset. It leaves them confused about how to achieve the positive feedback again, and it may be reinforcing the belief that intelligence is fixed and everyone has a certain amount of it. This is often referred to as having a “fixed mindset”, and has been shown to have a detrimental effect on long-term performance in kids and adults alike (Dweck, 2006).

While positive feedback is an incredibly powerful tool – a means of showing appreciation, fostering relationships, promoting open communication, and making it easier to also share constructive feedback – the way that you phrase your praise is critical. As managers and colleagues, being as specific as possible and focusing on the actions rather than the person are necessary if you’re going to improve performance and team cohesion through positive feedback. “You’re naturally good at this stuff” is less useful than, “What you did very well on this project was…” or “I can tell you are working on your time management, it’s having a real impact on our delivery as a team, for example…” because it isn’t as easy for people to pick out best practices and try to replicate them.


In a series of longitudinal studies, Robert Rosenthal (Professor of Psychology at the University of Harvard) told teachers that their pupils were taking part in a new and special test, developed by Harvard, that would predict which kids were going to turn into extraordinary performers. What he actually deployed was a simple IQ test. After the exam, the results were discarded and Rosenthal picked, at random, a few kids from across the school, declaring them on the verge of an extreme intellectual bloom. As he followed the children over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations of these kids had an enormous impact on them. If teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ. This was because teachers gave those students more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval. With these regular, informal micro-signals and affirmations, teachers selectively influenced the development of their pupils.

When we think “feedback”, we may be inclined to think of sitting down, perhaps in a meeting room, for a pre-arranged conversation in which your manager (or colleague) delivers a set of bullet points on what you did well and what you didn’t do well. But these experiments illustrate that every interaction can be a source of feedback information. Micro-behaviours and signals are an opportunity to develop individuals – as teachers did for those pupils they believed had huge potential – but they are also an opportunity to do harm – as teachers did for those children who were accidentally left behind.

Two things we learnt from children’s development
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