Encouragement is Effective in Work Settings (Case Study 2)

Increasing Persistence in Computing Through Encouragement

Encouragement is a powerful tool for increasing employee confidence and engagement, but it seems to be underutilized in the workforce. For example, reports from a 2004 Gallup Poll indicate that praise (which is similar, but not exactly the same as encouragement) is a rare experience for most employees. Only 35% of U.S. workers said they had been recognized for their work in the past year. This pattern of underutilizing positive feedback is counterproductive, because data from a 2005 Gallup poll showed that supervisors who focus on their employees’ strengths are likely to have employees who are engaged, meaning employees who are likely to “drive innovation and move the organization forward” (Krueger & Killham, 2005). The latter finding is illustrated in the graph to the right from the Gallup Organization, and supports the conclusion that a positive approach to supervising contributes to reduced turnover and improved productivity, profit, and innovation. Encouragement is simply good business practice.

The following example shared by a woman in the NCWIT Workforce Alliance illustrates how encouragement works on an individual level. She experienced a substantial career boost as a consequence of a single encouraging conversation:

“[A few years ago], a colleague of mine was sitting next to me on a plane ride home from a business trip. She was reviewing potential applicants from [our company] for a Society of Women Engineers National Emerging Leader Award and asked how come my application wasn’t part of the mix. I told her things like, ‘I would never win,’ ‘My background would never stand up to engineers from other companies.’ and ‘Forget it.’ By the time that 1 hour and 10 min flight was up, she had successfully convinced me to at least apply for the first stage and see where things go. I did apply and can proudly say that I did win one of the SWE National Emerging Leader Awards [that year]. While winning that award was a great national recognition in itself, it opened many doors for me internally, and I will never forget what that colleague did for me by encouraging me to apply for the award.”

This example illustrates the profound impact a simple encouraging conversation can have on a career. It can bolster confidence weakened by society-wide stereotypes about women’s suitability for careers in computing. These common negative stereotypes undermine belief in women’s technical competence, which leads many women to doubt their own abilities or under value their achievements. In this context, encouragement can counteract feelings of self-doubt and play an influential part in attracting and retaining women in computing.


Encouraging persistence is a simple practice that requires no additional resources. It is typically an element of mentoring, but there is no reason to restrict encouragement to the context of a mentoring relationship. Opportunities for offering encouragement abound during the normal course of daily interaction. It requires only a commitment to cultivating outstanding performance through positive communication.

Encouragement is essential to retention when women express doubts about whether they belong in computing. At this point, the supervisor’s response can make the difference between persistence and departure. Simply accepting the woman’s doubts at face value can facilitate her departure. In contrast, a sincere encouraging response that expresses confidence in the employee’s ability to succeed and that recommends persistence can facilitate retention.


  • Krueger, J. & Killham, E. (2005, December 8). At work, feeling good matters: Happy employees are better equipped to handle workplace stress, relationships, and change, according to the latest GMJ survey. Gallup Management Journal. http://nogaps.nl/pdf/Gallup.pdf
  • Albrecht, S. (Ed.) (2010). Handbook of Employee Engagement: Perspectives, Issues, Research and Practice. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

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Author: J. McGrath Cohoon