The Simple Phrase that Increases Effort 40%

Every effective leader and coach knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. When you perform this important process correctly,  the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.

Daniel Coyle asks this great question, “What’s the secret of great feedback?” Coyle says “we instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?”

Leading psychologists from leading institutions including Stanford, Yale and Columbia addressed this same question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.

To their utter astonishment, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they considered it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly.

What was the magical feedback?

Just one sentence:

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

That’s it. Simple, 19 words. Not only this is great feedback, but a signal that creates  something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection. Growing up as a child who had ADHD, I remember how my mom consistently used this type of feedback. Though I didn’t believe it on the outset, her constant reminders helped me change my belief culminating into a transformation of behavior and achievement of goals that seemed rather impossible at that time.  (Read more on the fascinating study of Pygmalion effect HERE)

RELATED: Coaching Tip: Instead of Feedback, Try Feedforward

Looking closer, the sentence contains several distinct signals:

  • 1) You are part of this group.
  • 2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
  • 3) I believe you can reach those standards.

I love how Coyle follows up with these insights:

“The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.”

Coyle offers three, relevant lessons for leaders and coaches based on this finding:

  • First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras,  fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
  • Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and  your belief that they have what it takes.

  • That’s great Paul. Amazing how simple words can impact so greatly.

    • So true Zech. I’ve seen it work myself. Let me know when you use this at your work and see how your performance changes.

  • drjimharris

    Great post Paul! I love this statement. (BTW – my PhD is in Communication, so this is right up this old guys alley!)

    • Yup! Right down your alley for sure. 🙂

  • “Don’t soft-pedal high standards.” This is so true. It is as if people were created to tackle tough tasks and desire to rise to the occasion.

    Great information. Thanks.

    • Thx Charles. I loved that as well. Empowerment comes through giving the right feedback.

    • Dan Venturino

      When you “soft pedal” telling the child it easy, they may become further frustrated. They may think, “if it’s easy, and I can’t do it, then I must be a dimwit.” My own struggles with school ended, when a trusted adult friend came along and trained me how to be disciplined with school work.

  • Those 19 words really are powerful! We shouldn’t underestimate the important and power of our words.

    Those 19 words provide encouragement and as well as a challenge to do more than we think possible.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I resolve to give out these 19 words more generously. I know when I believe in someone and give feedback the right way, I am in essence affirming God’s value in them, reinforcing their potential for excellence.

  • Peter

    Great post Paul, sounds like something evidence based that I can readily implement. 🙂

  • Lynn Hare

    Paul, do you think the Lord ever says, “I’m entering into these encounters with YOU because I have SUPERNATURAL expectations and I know that WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT you can do THE IMPOSSIBLE”?

    • Yes, I love how you phrased it that way. Our Lord does say it. We need to be on the same frequency to listen to His voice and follow His will. What is blocking us is our darkness, living in disobedience.

  • I really like that “magical” sentence, Paul. It really does build someone up and set higher expectations. It is the job of teachers to give feedback every single day with every single assignment. To be a successful leader, management must also give feedback in a professional manner.

    Feedback, when delivered properly, can be highly motivating to change behavior and work ethic. Good leaders also know the right time to deliver feedback. Good leaders are perceptive to people’s feelings and circumstances. The receiver must be willing to listen to the feedback. Your post gives me more great insight to feedback. Thanks so much!

    • Thx Brandon for your thoughts here. Why do you think leaders have a difficult time giving good feedback?

  • Paul – it works for me and should work for all students as they presumably have the desire to do their best.
    As a business coach, the coachee can be in any one of three states – can’t do, won’t do or can do – and the phrase used with other than ‘can do’ is likely to have the opposite effect. I’d like to see the full research if possible.

    • Hi Neville, sorry it took so long to reply. Here’s the full research. Hope you find it helpful! Thanks.

      • Joseph

        The effect of honest and supportive feedback on a student is indeed amazing. I had a Sunday school student of 12 years, whose marks were low enough to fail. I had the discretion to pass him. So I simply told him, “You are an intelligent boy, I know you can do much better if you try. So I am passing you, but you must work harder”. That was my honest reaction, as I had found his responses in class very much above average. The reaction was unexpected. He spontaneously hugged me & said that his mother tells him the same thing. Only later I learnt that his mother was a poor widow and he was the eldest of three children. I was transferred to another place and did not hear from him after that. But am sure that the feedback could have truly helped him.

  • Stephen Chapman

    This is a great article. I see my guys respond positively anytime that I show personal care for them. It also interesting to me to see how the guys I’m recruiting respond when I give them a call to something beyond themselves that will be difficult and challenging, but rewarding and allow them a sense of belonging. They not only want to jump on board, but want to bring others with them as well.

    I can relate to the ADHD as well. My parents consistently encouraged me and challenged me to do better. They were always supportive and gave me the courage to look beyond my shortcomings to become something great in God’s eyes. As a result, I believe I’ve found healing (after years of medication and being told there is no cure) and love being able to give people the care support that my family gave me. Thanks for the vulnerability in there!


    • So true Stephen. Thanks for sharing and relating with my story on ADHD. Encouragement is so vital even when times we don’t deserve it. It’s a reflection of God’s unconditional love. Blessings brother.

  • Jiyoun Oh

    I hope to write well-organized essay like you oppa. Zzang

    • Haha, thanks Jiyoun! Keep it up and you’ll have an excellent command of English in no time! 🙂

  • What a great reminder of the power of feedback, of setting high expectations, and of human potential.

    • Absolutely Skip. Thanks for checking out my post. 🙂

  • The power of proper feedback. It’s so simple, yet yields such a vast result in performance.

    Hey Paul, I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and you’ve reached them with this post 🙂 !

    • Yes, haha thanks Dragos for your compliments and applying the power of feedback right away!

  • Thanks for sharing Paul!

    • Pleasure Wesley. Thanks for reading!

  • I like that! This will make a huge difference as my wife and I homeschool our kids. Thanks so much for this post!

  • Mark

    Magic is never a good thing for the authentic Christian.

    • Lora Schafer

      It’s not real magic….what an odd comment.

      • Mark

        It is not odd for people who minister to those lost and tormented and living in bondage to magic. People should be careful to understand that the words they choose have meanings. Speak to those who are now free from SRA and similar abuses. What is odd is a Christian using the term loosely.

      • don

        Agreed, really odd.

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  • Yes, “don’t wish it were easier, wish that you’re better”.

    I’ve seen this research before and think it’s incredibly helpful. Thanks for presenting it concisely.

  • Alexis Lockhart

    That’s fantastic! I love the pygmalion affect! People will rise to your high standards or sink to go under the bar you have lowered for them!

  • Emily Gonzalez

    Great advice for any “liberating leader,” managers and teachers alike. Isn’t this at the heart of how Jesus leads us as disciples?