Self-promotion at work is tricky for women. For one thing, it’s long been observed that self-promotion puts women in a double bind. Women can incur social costs by advocating for themselves too strongly; they’re seen as less likable by those around them, including other women.
Yet studies also show that women who don’t advocate for themselves at all aren’t seen as competent leaders. That makes the middle ground frustratingly narrow and tricky to find. But there are ways women can effectively reframe self-promotion for themselves in order to become more comfortable with it.
Many women are turned off by the idea of self-promotion. I don’t know too many who hear the term and say to themselves, "I want to do more of that! That sounds just like my style! And that sounds like what the world needs—more people promoting themselves!"
Instead, I regularly hear capable, conscientious women expressing sentiments along the lines of, "Self-promotion is part of the same, old, bullshit organizational-politics stuff I don’t want to engage in. I don’t want to play that game," or, "I don’t want to brag or be arrogant. I’d rather just do great work and let it be noticed over time." For many women, self-promotion connotes egotism, forced, awkward actions, and an effortful striving for attention.
What's more, many women feel that heavy self-promoting is a "masculine" way of doing things. Career advice that counsels women to be better advocates for themselves, many believe, is really just telling them to act more like men.
Given all of this, many women—and of course some men, too—are grasping for an alternative, a method for highlighting their strengths in a way that isn't so showy. Here are four ways to rethink self-promotion that may feel more comfortable and prove more effective.
Start by asking yourself this question: How can your talents, accomplishments, and ideas become more visible to audiences, influencers, and decision-makers within your organization or your field? When you shift the frame from self-promotion to visibility, the emphasis changes: It's no longer about pushing yourself out into the limelight. Instead, you're simply taking your work out of hiding and letting it speak on your behalf. By answering this question, you may notice that right now, your work and contributions really aren’t as visible as they can be to the people you’d like to know about them.
Ask yourself, "How can I get my ideas out there in a way that lets me impact those I want to serve?" It can be as simple as posting on your company’s intranet or hosting a brown-bag lunch at your office, where you can discuss the innovative process your team has been developing, for instance. Sharing your ideas about potential improvements at the hospital where you work showcases your good thinking and can make a positive impact for the patients you serve. Whatever the case may be, the goal is to make your accomplishments more visible and allows others to benefit at the same time.
Many of us, and professional women in particular, feel compelled to tell many little lies—lies of omission—about our accomplishments. Do you "lie" in any of these ways?
- Only giving credit to others on a team and not acknowledging your own role
- Communicating about areas of a project where you fell short, but not communicating equally about areas of success
- Never mentioning extra work or off-hours spent on a project
- Not highlighting past accomplishments, qualifications, or awards—even when they’re highly relevant
- Rationalizing away past successes so they appear less meaningful ("that award was kind of silly anyway," "that degree isn’t so relevant here," "I only got that special assignment in my last job because they needed someone to fill a gap immediately")
- Devaluing what you’ve accomplished because a prior career direction doesn't feel as resonant for you anymore (leaving corporate law for a social-sector job and no longer referencing how you made partner at your old firm, or taking your art in a less commercial direction and dismissing the major magazine cover you previously illustrated)
If you’re sure that promoting yourself simply isn’t your way of doing things, imagine a spunky, rambunctious, 5-year-old girl who’s just done something she’s incredibly excited about. Maybe she wrote a song she’s thrilled with. Maybe she mastered counting up to 30, or maybe the garden she’s been watering with her dad started to bloom and she’s feeling quite proud.
What would she do? She’d talk about what she’d just made. She’d want to sing the song and show people that garden and count to 30 for them. She hasn’t yet learned to tamp down the way she talks about her accomplishments or learned that something about this instinct to share them is dark, selfish, or wrong.
Of course, you aren’t going to share your accomplishments in the same way as a child would, but thinking about that little girl can be a good reminder that the instinct to show and talk about what we’ve done is what we all do—before some of us are taught to do otherwise. Sharing what we’ve created is not the domain of the masculine; it’s the domain of the free.
It’s important to get comfortable with owning and speaking about our accomplishments, because doing so is key to professional success. But there’s also a deeper significance: Speaking forthrightly about our accomplishments allows us to better know and integrate them into our sense of self.
If we never hear ourselves owning—or even hinting at—what we’ve overcome, created, nurtured, or completed in our lives, how will we know competence, strength, and resilience as parts of who we are?
This article is adapted from Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead by Tara Mohr by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2015, Tara Mohr. It is reprinted with permission.