We all need encouragement from other people. Regardless of gender, role or organization, everyone needs some kind of external validation to keep moving forward with momentum and motivation, to build resilience, and to understand where we excel or bring positive impact. When we receive feedback from others, be they team members, colleagues or bosses, we gain valuable insights into the actions and behaviors that matter to them. These insights can, in turn, help us determine and prioritize exactly where it is that we can add value from a position of strength.

A Difference in Praise

“Societal patterns have changed over time, and we have far greater female representation in leadership,” says Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts. “But there is still a significant praise deficit that women face in life and in work. We do receive positive feedback, but research shows that, compared to men, this feedback often conforms to gender stereotypes — things like nurturing or care giving.”

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One study found that in performance reviews, men were more likely than women to have specific efforts lauded and linked to concrete business outcomes — new customer accounts, for example, or an uptick in sales.1  Women, on the other hand, were prone to receive more generic praise — comments such as being “an asset to the team,” having had a “good year” and the like.

This disparity matters, says Roberts, and it matters a very great deal. Without the same kind of constructive, positive encouragement, women not only fail to see their authority or contributions as equal in value to those of men, they also miss out on a critical opportunity to learn and grow.

“When there are a million things pulling you in different directions in work, it’s hard to really determine the best opportunities for your career and your leadership without the kind of 360-degree feedback that can highlight those sweet spots,” says Roberts. “Validation from other people is a tool that can help you make strategic decisions about where, when and how to invest your time and energy to create the most value and have the greatest impact.”

So what can women do to redress the praise deficit and elicit all the good benefits that affirmation unlocks?

Your Best Self

One approach is to “study your successes.” The Reflected Best Self Exercise is a celebrated technique, one which Roberts pioneered with colleagues Jane Dutton, Gretchen Spreitzer and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business, as well as Brianna Caza of the UNC Bryan School of Business and Economics and Emily Heaphy of the University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management.

“People say and do a lot of positive things in our daily lives, but women in particular are socialized to tune them out or undervalue them in some way,” Roberts notes. “The Reflected Best Self Exercise (RBSE) helps female decision-makers become more attuned to praise and more purposeful about following up on it.”

Women can deploy the RBSE to proactively select feedback from the people they know and trust and use this input to identify their “peak experiences” through the eyes of others. That understanding then informs their own self-development efforts.

As a framework, the RBSE has been integrated into training, leadership and academic programs globally, and research stemming from it points to a number of compelling outcomes, says Roberts. Positive feedback elicited in such a way not only promotes healthy emotions and personal agency, it helps forge stronger relationships with colleagues, family and friends. It has also been seen to positively increase job satisfaction and engagement.

Roberts and colleagues at Darden use the RBSE in Darden’s Women in Leadership Program to deliver what she describes as a “positive jolt” to participants, and the results can be revelatory.

“It’s illuminating for women to see themselves through the lens of other people and to be able to pinpoint where they are creating value,” Roberts observes. “In strategic terms, it really sheds light on where the opportunities are to show up and bring your best self, and also when you can actually step back and preserve time and energy.”

More Tools and Positive Feedback

The RBSE tool is not the only way to study successes and learn from them, adds Roberts. She recommends other simple tactics such as saving, storing and reviewing praise in a digital or physical format, which can help facilitate revisiting and internalizing the feedback. Importantly, it also can serve as armor to counteract the overwhelming effect of criticism, which tends to be more jarring and therefore more memorable.

Following up on the specifics of positive feedback can also unlock real learning and bolster resilience. Studies show that not only do managers neglect to offer routine praise,2  but men receive more developmental feedback than women.3  Asking for more details around a strength or how a strength might be deployed in different contexts could help develop that skill and unlock greater impact.

“Journaling your successes, logging them, and asking detailed and concrete questions to really unpack where your strengths and value lie — these are powerful ways to counterbalance the unsettling power that negative feedback has, and it can help women redress the praise deficit,” says Roberts.

And once you have a strong sense of your “best self,” she recommends consciously enacting that self — especially in difficult or “toxic” environments.

“When the odds are stacked against you at work, an effective tactic is to mine other parts of your life — or different roles that you have — for positive feedback about your strengths and try to bring those dimensions of yourself to the workplace,” Roberts suggests. “For example, I know a female executive who received best-self feedback for organizing events in her community. She then applied it in the workplace to bring diverse stakeholders together on a major internal change initiative.”

Pay It Forward

And remember to pay positive feedback forward to other women, Roberts adds.

“Those who recognize and affirm other people’s contributions will remember to focus on their own best selves and bring those selves forward, while simultaneously bringing out the best in others,” Roberts emphasizes. “And we should all develop the habit of recognizing others — whether it’s through email, one-on-one, or a follow-up meeting — because becoming our best selves and encouraging the same in others is a lifelong journey. It is a journey in positively transforming yourself, your relationships and your organizations.”

The preceding is drawn from Women in Leadership, a white paper featuring evidence-backed techniques and tools that leaders can leverage to reconfigure the playing field — for themselves and others

  • 1Shelley J. Correll, Katherine R. Weisshaar, Alison T. Wynn and JoAnne Delfino Wehner, “Inside the Black Box of Organizational Life: The Gendered Language of Performance Assessment,” American Sociological Review 85, No. 6 (December 2020): 1022–1050, https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122420962080.
  • 2Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “Why Do So Many Managers Avoid Giving Praise?” Harvard Business Review, 2 May 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/05/why-do-so-many-managers-avoid-giving-praise.
  • 3Elena Doldor, Madeleine Wyatt and Jo Silvester, “Statesmen or Cheerleaders? Using Topic Modeling to Examine Gendered Messages in Narrative Developmental Feedback for Leaders,” The Leadership Quarterly 30, No. 5 (October 2019), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2019.101308.
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About the Expert

Laura Morgan Roberts

Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in diversity, authenticity and leadership development, Roberts’ research and consulting focuses on the science of maximizing human potential in diverse organizations and communities. The author of more than 50 research articles, teaching cases and practitioner-oriented content aimed at strategically activating one’s best self through strength-based development, her work has also been featured in global media outlets. She has also edited three books: Race, Work and Leadership; Positive Organizing in a Global Society; and Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations.

Prior to joining Darden, Roberts served on the faculties of Harvard Business School, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.

B.A., University of Virginia; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan