Teaching the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ for personal development

September 26, 2016

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of the International Positive Psychology Association’s Positive Work and Organizations: Research and Practice newsletter.

Teaching the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ for Personal Development

“It is the most powerful thing I have taught in 21 years.”
Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale University

All of us can recall our own extraordinary moments, those moments when we felt that our best self was brought to light, affirmed by others, and put into practice. These memories are seared into our minds as moments when we felt alive, true to our deepest selves, and pursuant to our full potential as human beings. Over time, we accumulate these experiences into a “portrait” of who we are and what we do when we are at our personal best. This “best self portrait” is a resource we call on to build confidence, help us make decisions, have courage, prepare and see possibilities for the future, and be resilient in the face of challenges. Researchers (Jane Dutton, Gretchen Spreitzer, Laura Morgan Roberts, and Robert Quinn) at the Center for Positive Organizations have developed a tool called the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ (RBSE™) to enable individuals, coaches, and managers to help people develop their best selves by seeing glimpses of their own greatness.

Participants find that the RBSE differs from other leadership development tools in several ways. First, unlike traditional leadership development assessments which focus on survey feedback from colleagues, the RBSE is designed to provide narrative feedback in the form of stories that illustrate the participant at their best, offering unique insights into ways the participant can add value and make positive contributions. Second, unlike typical approaches soliciting feedback from those with whom an individual works (bosses, peers, subordinates), this exercise focuses on understanding how colleagues, friends, and family members see the participant when that individual is at their best. And third, the tool focuses on strengths alone, rather than on strengths and weaknesses. We focus exclusively on strength because (1) people already know quite a bit about their weaknesses, and (2) when people receive feedback on both strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses garner much more attention and it is difficult for people to concentrate on what unique and special talents they have to offer to the world. With the RBSE, participants learn what they do well, as opposed to the predominant orientation toward identifying competency gaps, weaknesses, and limitations.

Participants synthesize the narrative stories submitted by their colleagues, friends, and family members into a cumulative portrait of their “best self,” which then can help them identify, understand, and act on their unique talents and strengths. Finally, participants create a developmental agenda for leveraging their reflected best self and expanding their capacity to add value within and beyond various environments.

Reflected Best Self Exercise Benefits and Outcomes

There are a variety of ways the RBSE can be utilized effectively: the RBSE facilitator can play a key role in encouraging participants to identify themes, patterns, and situational characteristics present in reflected best self stories that enable participants to be at their personal best. Both short-term and long-term actions are considered and included. In addition, the RBSE is a great complement to the Gallup Center’s Clifton StrengthsFinder® assessment (https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/) because it provides narrative feedback from a range of people who know the respondent well. Staff at the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations can also provide support services throughout the exercise, such as collecting best self stories from contributors and compiling them into an organized packet for maximum impact with minimum work on the part of the participants.

In our experience, individuals who take part in the RBSE have transformative positive reactions. Feelings of appreciation, energy, possibility, hope, and love are just a few of these reactions that not only touch participants, but also the communities and organizations to which they belong. Uncovering the positive impact a participant has on their friends, family, and colleagues tends to strengthen these relationships, thereby providing important relational resources that people can use as they move forward. This process also produces a heightened sense of agency and efficacy, which are key cognitive resources for changing and directing participants’ behavior as they move forward on their developmental path. In contrast to a deficit-based orientation, this strengths-based orientation exercise encourages individuals to continue making positive contributions in all areas of life.

As a tool for personal development, the best self portrait aids a person in obtaining higher levels of performance by helping them be more of their best self in their everyday life. The best self portrait motivates people to develop a new vision for future possibilities; it helps them create a more vivid and elaborate sense of who they can become in the future, also known as their “possible selves.” Furthermore, the best self portrait encourages people to identify contexts that facilitate the expression and appreciation of their unique composite of strengths and contributions. In work contexts, this means that people are better able to proactively select settings, people, and tasks that play into their strengths, talents, and potential contributions.

Additional information

Individuals and organizations can purchase the Reflected Best Self Exercise through the Center for Positive Organizations via the link listed below. The purchase of the RBSE includes the RBSE guide, teaching plans, and additional optional assignments to accompany the exercise. Advanced support includes a best self story collection service. More information can be found online at positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/rbse.


About the Center for Positive Organizations

Michigan Ross is working to redefine “business” as a place of purpose, contribution, and growth—for individuals and society. That belief in the power of business as a force for positive change in the world is reflected here at the Center for Positive Organizations.

Over the last 15 years we have earned international recognition for our impact on research and practice.

We are the leading research hub focused on the leadership, strategies, systems, culture, and practices of high-performing organizations that enable people to be their best selves in the workplace.

Learn more at positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


Katie Forsythe

Forsythe is a research assistant at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and holds a graduate degree in higher education and an undergraduate degree in business. She is interested in business and university leadership and how the identities held by individuals in these positions resonate with and inspire students to pursue similar leadership positions.

Gretchen M. Spreitzer

Spreitzer’s research focuses on employee empowerment and leadership development, particularly within a context of organizational change and decline. Her most recent work is looking at positive deviance and how organizations enable employees to thrive. This work fits within a larger effort at Michigan Ross to develop a scholarship of positive organizing.

She is the co-author of several books including How to be a Positive Leader (2014) with Jane Dutton, Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship with Kim Cameron, The Leader’s Change Handbook: An Essential Guide to Setting Direction and Taking Action (1999) with Jay Conger and Edward Lawler, The Future of Leadership: Speaking to the Next Generation (2001) with Warren Bennis and Thomas Cummings, A Company of Leaders: Five Disciplines for Unleashing the Power in Your Workforce (2001) with Robert Quinn.