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Lessons Learned

How Much Is Too Much Self-Promotion At Work?

Here's what you can do (without being downright manipulative) to shape how competent and likable you're seen to be.

How Much Is Too Much Self-Promotion At Work?
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

In a perfect world, there'd be a very strong correlation between job performance and career success. In ours, though, there isn't.

Plenty of people succeed despite contributing very little to their organizations, and plenty who excel at their jobs don't. As the psychologist Ben Dattner argues in his excellent book The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure, one reason why is that individual success often rests on people's ability to take credit for others’ achievements or blame them for their own mistakes.

Appearances Matter

If this is a cynical view of things, it points up a basic psychological reality: In many group contexts, and especially at work, how competent we're perceived to be is at least as important as how competent we actually are.

There are also things we can do to shape those perceptions—things that have little to do with how well we actually perform. For instance, people who brag a lot are generally seen as cold, selfish, and less likable, whereas people who seem modest tend to be viewed as more likable, competent, and rewarding to work with.

So in addition to being good at our jobs, what else can we do—without being downright manipulative—in order to shape how we're perceived to maximize our chances for success? Is it better to advertise your achievements in order to avoid being bypassed for a promotion? Or do you risk coming off as obnoxious that way? Can we really just put our heads down and let our work speak for itself?

The answer, as always in psychology, is hardly clear-cut. There are pros and cons to both extremes, and ample reasons to aim for the center. As the saying goes, everything is better in moderation (except for moderation itself). What seems clear is that while the right amount of self-promotion at work can be helpful, it's more an art than a science. Here's why and what to bear in mind.

Performance Is Hard To Judge

Even in the age of computer-mediated work and "people analytics," most organizations still rely on subjective measures of performance.

Sure, lots of companies claim they're getting better at monitoring and recording employees’ behavior—and they may be—but subjective judgment has hardly been factored out of the equation. Many would even argue that that isn't altogether a bad thing; some projects succeed or fail based on human features that are harder to quantify, like how one team member's personality blends with another's during high-pressure projects.

But in other ways, much the same elements can lead to unfair favoritism, driven by unconscious bias. In any event, politics and impressions play a significant role in the process.

Confidence Is Usually Seen As Competence

Too many people are unaware of their skills, and when they think they're better than they actually are, others can be quick to interpret their overconfidence as confidence (again, it's hard to judge performance objectively). That's why some people enjoy a short-term practical advantage when they brag about their skills and accomplishments, even without a basis.

In some cases, self-promotion can help persuade others you're competent or talented even when you aren't. But the long-term advantages to doing so—to your team, organization, and even ultimately yourself—are less clear. When talentless people are rewarded based on overblown perceptions, the mismatch between their confidence and their competence usually becomes apparent, and the group suffers.

Modesty Can Be Seen As Weakness

As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, "With people with only modest ability, modesty is mere honesty; but with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy."

Many of us like to think of modesty and humility as positive attributes, but our workplaces tend to punish people for displaying them. Much of the time, being modest only leads to success when others already see you as competent. But if they can't assess your competence very accurately in the first place, they'll just write off your humility as insecurity and assume you're as middlingly talented (or worse) as you present yourself to be.

That helps explain why false modesty is often so effective in obviously talented people. When your competence is beyond question, it implies that you're better than you allow yourself to admit. In fact, when two people are seen as equally competent, the more modest of them is typically more likable.

Otherwise, though, modesty can be a liability. If there's any doubt about your competence, it can be interpreted as a confession of weakness.

So where does that leave us? Self-promotion can make others aware of your strengths, but it can just as effectively fool people into believing you're better than you are. It's usually best to strike a balance between revealing your self-doubts and bragging about your talents. Regardless of how good you think you are, or how good you really are, try to promote your talents in a subtle way.

Instead of stating point-blank what your'e good at, talk about what you're interested in or passionate about. Don't extol your own achievements, but mention them discretely in context, as if you're seeking others' feedback on them.

And while you shouldn’t take credit for other people’s accomplishments, you also shouldn't blame them for your mistakes. When it comes down to it, your goal is simple: to come across as competent but not arrogant. After all, that's a better combination than any of the alternatives—competent yet arrogant, incompetent arrogant, or incompetent and humble.

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