Career Tips: The delicate art of self-promotion

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Career success, to a very large extent, depends on 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 the value you’ve created – to ensure that managers and peers recognize it – you risk coming across as a shameless self-promoter. Not to mention the “icky” feeling that many of us get when we self-promote.

No one likes a braggart – maybe because bragging makes others feel envy, annoyance, or even anger. 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 penalized 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.

Trying to hide the fact that you’re boasting doesn’t help. Consider the “humblebrag” – that is, a boast masked by a complaint or by humility. In a research led by the University of North Carolina, participants rated people who made comments on social media such as “Huh. I seem to have written one of’s top 10 books of the year. Unexpected” as not only less likable but also less competent than people who were more straightforward.

So how can you realize the benefits of self-promotion without the backlash? Opportunities to brag without penalty at work are few and far between, so the general advice is to focus on earning recognition through consistent performance. As an old saying goes, “The cream will rise to the top.”

However, cream sometimes needs a little help to rise. And although bragging is by and large socially inappropriate, there are exceptions. Some researches point to a few ways to draw attention to your accomplishments without penalty, whether your goal is instrumental (to ensure your contributions aren’t overlooked) or emotional.

Share when asked

Humility is admirable. But if someone requests information or an answer 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. If you’re given an opportunity to brag – for example, by being asked, “What is your greatest strength?” or “How did you finish that so quickly?” – forgoing it can raise suspicion. We found that not answering or being coy about such questions may cause people to think you’re neither trustworthy nor likable.

You might be tempted to induce others to give you such openings for self-promotion, or boomerasking. But that’s a risky strategy if a conversation partner senses that he or she is being gamed. A new research led by Ryan Hauser of Harvard Business School indicates that posing a question not because you want an answer but because you want someone to ask the same of you makes a worse impression than outright bragging. Let questions arise organically, and when you see opportunities to highlight your successes, make the most of them.

Share when others are sharing

Have you noticed that when someone shares something personal with you, whether it be a point of pride or a shortcoming, you are often triggered to reciprocate? Indeed, a series of studies indicate that when people were told that others had revealed personal information, it prompted them to reciprocate in kind.And it held true even when people interacted with a computer that displayed “self-promotional” messages, such as that it “rarely gets used to its full potential” or “has a huge hard drive.” 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 and measuring the extent to which they engaged in self-promotion. 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. 

You can see this effect play out on LinkedIn, where self-promotion is rampant, or in offices where doctors, lawyers, and other professionals commonly display their degrees and credentials to show patients or clients that they are in qualified hands. In short, research indicates that in situations where others share too, people can successfully convey their accomplishments without coming across as unlikable, egotistical, or inconsiderate.

Find a promoter

Athletes, musicians, and actors hire publicists and agents for good reasons. Intermediaries are seen as less self-serving and thus provide an aura of objectivity. The same can be true in business settings. In a series of studies led by Stanford, 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’m a natural leader.” In the second, a recruiter did the promotion: “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. The effect is so powerful that even blatant conflicts of interest – for example if an executive search firm is being paid a percentage of a new hire’s salary – don’t seem to undermine intermediaries’ credibility.

Of course, no one brings an agent to a performance review, and it’s rare to have a cheerleading recruiter attend your job interviews. But 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. This is easier than you might think. A research led by Cornell university indicates that we tend to underestimate others’ willingness to help by about 50%. Benefits also accrue to the helper. Research on “positive gossip” indicates that people are more highly regarded when they brag about others. That means that you, too, should praise the accomplishments of others; it’s kind, good for morale, and may prompt reciprocation.

One last note: 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 candor is laudable, but also because it makes them less likely to come across as brash, unlikable, and worthy of envy. This even holds for brands. Research suggests that when marketers point out a minor drawback in an otherwise positive product description, consumer purchase interest actually increases.

This strategy works because humans are much more adept at making relative judgments than absolute ones: When negative information is sprinkled into a largely positive narrative, we compare the two, which allows accomplishments to stand out and be more readily accepted. For example, participants in a research study were highly envious of successful (fictional) entrepreneurs except for the one who, after pitching to a group of potential investors, said, “I wasn’t always so successful. I had a lot of trouble getting to where I am now… When I started my company… I failed to demonstrate why potential clients should believe in me and our mission. Many… turned me down.” Taking this research to heart, one colleague went so far as to post a “CV of failures” alongside his accomplishments on his university biography page.

Managers, in particular, benefit from revealing small weaknesses, because it causes their employees to view them as more authentic, which leads to greater trust and motivation. However, the positive effect accrued only when the weakness was relatively mild rather than serious.

Humorous self-deprecation is another way to offset bragging – but again, use it with caution. Recent research suggests that observers take self-deprecating jokes at face value. Self-deprecation and bragging seem to be two sides of the same coin. A little helps; too much can hurt.

Celebrate the right way

We all want our achievements to be recognized 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. The reverse is also true: According to a study of the University of Chicago, withholding good news from close others harms trust and intimacy: People feel left out.

As for myself, I have been working in Asian countries for quite a long time. Even in Asia, where humility is considered a virtual and self-promotion is usually despised, a healthy amount of bragging is also necessary for my career.