Redressing the praise deficit: women in leadership and leveraging your best self

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By Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts

We all need encouragement from other people. Regardless of gender, role or organisation, everyone needs 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 behaviours that matter to them. These insights can, in turn, help us determine and prioritise 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. 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.

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. 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, 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, but 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. 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.” People say and do a lot of positive things in their daily lives, but women are socialised to tune them out or undervalue them in some way. 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 programmes globally, and research stemming from it points to a number of compelling outcomes. Positive feedback elicited in such a way not only promotes healthy emotions and personal agency, but it also helps forge stronger relationships with colleagues, family, and friends. It has also been seen to positively increase job satisfaction and engagement.

At Darden we use the RBSE in our Women in Leadership Programme to deliver what I would describe 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. In strategic terms, it really sheds light on where the opportunities are to show up and bring your best self, and when you can 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. I would recommend other simple tactics such as saving, storing, and reviewing praise in a digital or physical format, which can help facilitate revisiting and internalising the feedback. Importantly, it also can serve as armour to counteract the negative effects 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, but men receive more developmental feedback than women. 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. And once you have a strong sense of your “best self,” you should consciously enact 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.

Pay it forward

And remember to pay positive feedback forward to other women. Those who recognise 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. And we should all develop the habit of recognising 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 organisations.

About the author

Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Laura’s research and consulting focus on the science of maximizing human potential in diverse organizations and communities. She has published over fifty research articles, teaching cases, and practitioner-oriented tools for strategically activating best selves through strength-based development. She has also edited three books: Race, Work and Leadership; Positive Organizing in a Global Society; and Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations. Her influential publications on diversity, authenticity and leadership development have been featured in Harvard Business Review and several other global media outlets.

Laura Morgan Roberts

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