Five Ways to Beat the Self-Promotion Paradox

iStock_000017490863XSmallBy Jacey Fortin (New York City)

It seems that women are doing almost everything right.

According to Catalyst’s October 2011 study, women educate themselves as needed, mingle with higher-level professionals, and seek out extra responsibilities. They are just as proactive as men when it comes to pursuing their goals.

But when it comes to closing the gender gap, Catalyst found that “the best way to advance is not one-size-fits-all.” In order for females to go that extra mile, they should invest more effort into one key area: self promotion. “Of all the strategies used by women, making their achievements known… was the only one associated with compensation growth,” noted the report.

But why? According to Connie Glaser, a best-selling author and women’s leadership expert, societal expectations for female behavior promote modesty and collaboration—but these traits don’t necessarily lead to professional advancement. “One of the best ways to get ahead in the workplace is letting people know you’re doing good work,” she said. “And many women feel very uncomfortable with that.”

Lauren Stiller Rikleen agrees. As the Executive-in-Residence at Boston College’s Center for Work & Family in the Carroll School of Management and the president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, she knows how difficult it can be for women to promote themselves. “It’s not that women are bad at self-promoting,” she said. “It’s that they are bumping up against these societal norms when they try to showcase what they’ve achieved.”

So how can women make their accomplishments known without feeling like braggarts or being penalized for self-promotion? Both Glaser and Rikleen emphasize that effective self-promotion is all about being strategic. They offered some useful tips for professional women who want to get the recognition they deserve.

  1. Don’t Say a Thing

    Times are changing. New technologies allow us to communicate in more ways than ever before, and Glaser suggests we take advantage of new media to get the word out. Emails, websites, and networks like LinkedIn all have great potential. “If you can put information in the context of a website, it gains an appearance of objectivity,” she explained. “Let’s say you have references or emails that others have sent about your work; you can list a couple of comments that clients have provided. And by all means, use Linked In! People are going to be checking you out, so it’s all about how you frame your accomplishments.”

    The next time a colleague—be it a client, a coworker or a superior—sends you an appreciative email, don’t discard it. Keep records of your rave reviews, and use them to your benefit.

  2. Recognize Opportunities

    Sometimes, effective self-promotion is all about context. So when the opportunity to show off presents itself, seize it!

    “A lot of workplaces have self-evaluation processes,” explained Rikleen. “On more than one occasion, people reviewing those evaluations have said to me that they could tell, without looking at the name, whether each was written by a man or a woman. Women will tend to downplay their accomplishments and give credit to other team members. Men see self-evaluation as a vehicle to showcase what they’ve done.”

    If you’re self-evaluating, asking for a raise, or going for a promotion, modesty won’t get you anywhere. “These are totally appropriate places to say, ‘Here’s my contribution, and here’s why it’s really important,’” said Rikleen.

  3. Accept the Accolades

    When someone offers you a compliment, resist the urge to brush it off. “Many times I have seen women achieve something—making a great presentation, for instance—and when someone comes up and says, ‘Great job!’ they respond, ‘Oh, it was nothing. I was so nervous!’” said Glaser.

    This is the opposite of self-promotion—it minimizes your achievements and downplays your capabilities. “If you deflect it, you can’t get it back,” said Glaser. “When someone is giving you credit, embrace it graciously. Simply say, ‘Thank you; I was delighted with the opportunity.’ Don’t give it away. You’ve worked too hard to get that recognition.”

  4. Watch Your Language

    Many women are simply uncomfortable with talking themselves up, and Rikleen suggests that we change the way we define our terms. Nobody wants to be seen as a braggart—but what exactly is the difference between bragging and self-promotion?

    “The difference is one of perception more than reality,” she said. “‘Bragging’ is a pejorative word for self-promotion. I think it’s in the eyes of the beholder more than a clear-cut distinction.”

    So go ahead and talk about the achievements that make you proud. You can’t control how you’ll be perceived, but communicating strategically can help. “Choice of words can be very powerful,” explained Rikleen. “Think about how you choose to let people know about an accomplishment. You can say, ‘I’m really excited to share this information with you,’ and then talk about something you’ve achieved.”

  5. Ask for Assistance

    Making your voice heard isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to go it alone. Ask for help in promoting your achievements, and create a culture of mutual support. “If you have an accomplishment you want other people to know about, ask somebody else if they’d feel comfortable sharing it,” said Rikleen.

    Glaser pointed out that it often helps to arrange an alliance of sorts before a big meeting or conference. Then, if your ideas are dismissed or your achievements go unnoticed, you can count on a coworker to speak up on your behalf—and vice-versa. “There are ways that women working together can give that kind of visibility and recognition to one another,” she said.

In the end, self-promotion requires some extra strategic effort for women. “It’s probably something that men don’t have to deal with as much, because they can bring attention to themselves with greater ease,” explained Glaser. “But there are ways women can do it gracefully and still accomplish their ends. And it’s imperative that women do that.”

0 Response

  1. The key to self promotion is to show how that your ideas, or what you accomplished, resulted in a good outcome. In marketing lingo we sometimes refer to it as “WIIFM” — What’s in it for me?

    The “me” is always the reader or person you’re speaking to. So if you make it about them, not you, you’ll get your message across and get the other person to feel better off because of your actions or ideas.

  2. Here’s another idea that comes both from research (Moss-Racusin) and also my own experiences. Women are MUCH better at promoting the achievements of other people than themselves. So ask your friendly female peers to review your resume and cover letters (9 times out of 10 they will say “you’re underselling yourself”!), and to talk to others about the good things you’ve done. You can easily return the favour.