Savvy self-promotion: The delicate art, and science, of bragging

We know that success at work depends on being — and being seen as — both competent and likable. You need people to notice your growth and accomplishments while also enjoying your company. But this puts you in a predicament. If you draw attention to your accomplishments — to ensure that managers and peers recognise them — you risk coming across as a shameless self-promoter.

Numerous studies have shown that a person who brags is seen as (and is often also being) egotistical, insecure and inconsiderate. At the same time, research indicates, those who talk themselves up are not perceived as any more competent than their humbler counterparts. Self-promotion has actually been associated with worse performance reviews — particularly for women, who are penalised more heavily when they boast. And although certain cultures, including the United States, are more tolerant of self-promotion than others, the potential downsides to bragging seem to be universal.

So how can you realise the benefits of self-promotion without the backlash? My research and that of others points to a few ways to draw attention to your accomplishments without penalty, whether your goal is instrumental (say, to ensure that your contributions aren’t overlooked come bonus time) or emotional (perhaps to get praise and feel valued):

Share when asked

Humility is admirable. But if someone requests information that requires you to reveal positives about yourself, you should oblige. Research indicates that when someone details an accomplishment in response to a direct question, others don’t judge that person as any less agreeable. In fact, in research I conducted with Kate Barasz of ESADE and Michael Norton of HBS, we found that if you’re given an opportunity to brag — for example, by being asked, “What are your greatest strengths?” or “How did you finish that so quickly?” — forgoing it can raise suspicion. People might think you’re neither trustworthy nor likable.

You might be tempted to induce others to give you such openings for self-promotion — what some call “boomerasking.” But that’s a risky strategy if a conversation partner senses that he or she is being gamed. New research led by Ryan Hauser of Harvard Business School indicates that posing a question because you want someone to ask the same of you makes a worse impression than outright bragging.

Share when others are sharing

Have you noticed that when someone shares something personal with you, you are often triggered to reciprocate? Indeed, a series of studies some colleagues and I conducted found that when people were told that others had revealed personal information, it prompted them to reciprocate in kind. Moreover, research led by Youngme Moon of HBS indicates that it held true even when people interacted with a computer that displayed “self-promotional” messages. The penalty for bragging seems to dissipate when others in the room are engaging in self-promotion.

Similarly, in contexts where people typically share their successes, such as job interviews, it can be beneficial to brag. In one study, researchers followed 106 job seekers, taping their interviews. Those who took time to outline their strengths, experience and achievements were more likely to be rated by their interviewers as suitable for the job and of greater interest to the organization than those who didn’t brag as much.

Find a promoter

In a series of studies led by Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, participants tasked with setting a salary for a new employee were given one of two job interview transcripts. In the first, the candidate volunteered statements such as “Anyone who has worked with me would say that I am a natural leader.” In the second, a recruiter did the promoting: “Anyone who has worked with her would say that she is a natural leader.” The candidate who bragged through an intermediary was better liked, seen as more competent, and awarded higher pay than the self-promotional one. Other research indicates that secondhand bragging is also less likely to elicit negative emotions such as envy and annoyance.

You can find intermediaries, including peers, bosses, mentors and sponsors, who will be happy to speak up on your behalf — as long as you are respectful in your solicitation. And if someone unexpectedly compliments you publicly, resist the instinct to humbly downplay it; a smile or a simple “Thank you” will suffice.

Strike a balance

Even when you see a clear opening to highlight your accomplishments, you should be measured about it. Research indicates that when people present a balanced picture of themselves, rather than discussing only successes, they come across as more credible and affable. Those with high status, in particular, should acknowledge failures and foibles as well as achievements, not only because such candour is laudable, but also because it makes them less likely to come across as brash, unlikeable and worthy of envy.

Humorous self-deprecation is another way to offset bragging — but again, use it with caution. Recent research suggests that observers take self-deprecating jokes (for example, “Every project I’ve done has been on time and under budget — if you double the estimates!”) at face value.

Celebrate the right way

We all want our achievements to be recognised and applauded. It’s a boost to morale and well-being. And there are ways to celebrate without coming across as boastful. One is to find a circle of close friends at work and outside it who will cheer your victories as if they were their own. Research shows that telling confidants about your successes can improve those relationships.

Solo celebrations work too. Treat yourself to a nice meal, a new dress or just a relaxing night in with your favorite TV show. In fact, I recommend making time to regularly reflect on your successes. Research suggests that when we accomplish something big — say, landing that promotion — our happiness levels initially increase but soon return to their baseline. It can be beneficial to get more mileage out of achievements by reminiscing about them.

The research-backed tactics I’ve described should help you become more effective at promoting yourself at work while proving to be both likable and competent. Knowing how and when to boast — and when to refrain — is one important way to advance your career.

One last and crucial point: If you find yourself constantly fighting the urge to brag, ask yourself why you feel the need. Everybody loves praise, but are you overly dependent on it? Not intrinsically motivated enough? Feeling undervalued in your profession? If so, why? The answers to those questions may prompt deeper self-reflection, which could bring you far more personal benefit than self-promotion ever will.

Written by: Leslie K. John
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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