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Praise from your boss can actually hold you back. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t

The president of WOMEN Unlimited says when your boss tells you how wonderful you’re doing, which, on the surface seems great, it’s often the kiss of death when it comes to career advancement. Here’s why.

Praise from your boss can actually hold you back. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t
[Source images: LigKo/iStock; Rawpixel]
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“My work should speak for itself.”

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I’ve heard this sentiment hundreds of times from talented women going through our career development programs. Often, these women believe—to a fault—that because they are doing a good job in their departments, those efforts will automatically translate to being rewarded with a promotion, raise, or both.

In reality, leaving your work “to speak for itself” undercuts your ability to position yourself for the role of your dreams. Without making it abundantly clear why you want to advance in the organization and how your skills can positively impact the ROI of the business, those making advancement decisions are unlikely to be considering you for a leadership position.

In addition, I see women in our programs (who are already there to be groomed for increased corporate responsibilities) tell me that they regularly receive glowing performance reviews. Their bosses will tell them how wonderful they are doing, which, on the surface seems great, but in reality, it’s often the kiss of death when it comes to career advancement. Here’s why:

Why “praise” can be problematic

A recent Cornell University study suggests that women receive kinder—and less honest—feedback than their male counterparts, making it harder for them to navigate their jobs and achieve leadership positions. This warm “praise feedback” is problematic because it provides women with a false sense of confidence while simultaneously hindering them from gathering any real meaningful insights about their work.

While the pandemic is also affecting women’s job security more than that of their male counterparts, it makes sense that they would be more apt to relish this positive feedback more than ever. Recently, I worked with a woman who was told to “keep up the good work,” and that she “did a great job during that presentation last week.” It’s not surprising that she was satisfied with this type of feedback and didn’t pose any additional questions to her boss for the rest of the conversation. The result was she did not receive the critical feedback she needed to advance.

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How to change the narrative to advance

Instead of just accepting praise feedback and moving on, women should use this opportunity to redirect the conversation toward how they can take their jobs to the next level. In advance of any performance-based conversation with your boss, try these strategies:

Reflect before you ask: Take some time to reflect on your areas of interest and identify how those areas will be valued by your organization. How can your skills create impact for your company, your customers? What are your areas of interest to advance? What skills will help you achieve your goals? Whose input or perspective would be helpful?

Create a career roadmap: By answering the questions above, you can get a sense of how you can position yourself for the job you desire most. It’s about being able to showcase that you have done your homework as to how the company operates and how you fit into its long-term success.

Bring your own questions to the table: Now that you’ve mapped out your skill sets and how they translate into the position you’re after, arm yourself with pointed questions to ask your boss. Answers to these questions will shed some light on what it takes to really set yourself up for attaining that new position or raise. For example, if you are interested in a senior position, specific questions such as: “I am interested in the director of Marketing position. As you consider my skills and experience, what are the areas that would be seen as critical for that role, and what are the areas I should have as a focus for my development?”

How to dodge vague and unhelpful responses

Sometimes, explicit questions are met with vague answers. A common example is when a manager will respond to a question about how they can be promoted to X position by saying, “You need to be more strategic in your approach.” Of course, that can mean a million different things and does not actually provide concrete insights or a direct path to pursue. Instead of accepting that sort of response, the best thing to do is follow up with a question like, “Great. What exactly does being more strategic look like and translate to? How can I change my behavior or work to reflect what you are looking for so that I can be considered for this position?”

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How to close the feedback loop

Finally, as you apply the feedback to your development, go back to those same managers and share how their feedback has been helpful. Show them in detail how you have incorporated their feedback into your work and how you are on the path to advancing in your career. Continuing to check in to make sure that you are understanding and meeting expectations is key.

The major takeaway is to always ask questions that allow you to take real action after your meeting. Don’t settle for reassurances or nebulous feedback that doesn’t serve you. In fact, the phrase I always tell the women in our programs to repeat in the mirror daily is: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” That’s the key to taking control of your career and breaking through the glass ceiling once and for all.


Rosina Racioppi, Ed.D. is the president and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, Inc.