It’s All (or at least mostly) About ME – How to Navigate Self-Promotion

Business meetingSomeone has just paid you a compliment about your achievements. How do you react?

According to a recent post on the HBR Blog network by Dorie Clark and Andy Molinsky, your answer to the above will vary depending on the cultural environment in which you were brought up. Self-promotion is not welcome in all cultures, especially those where humility and modesty are seen as admirable attributes. In countries like America however, self-promotion is culturally very acceptable. Some of you might think that such issues aren’t of great importance either because you don’t see the benefits of self-promotion, or because you work in cultures where self-promotion isn’t valued. Right? Think again.

Given the increasingly global nature of our work and workforces, you might come across self-promotion gurus much sooner than you expected. And what’s more, studies show they will be at an advantage over you as they will experience faster career progression and associated compensation. According to the 2011 Catalyst report (The myth of the ideal worker: Does really doing all the right things get women ahead?), self-promotion is one of the nine tactics which support career advancement. The report found that by “making achievements visible” – through seeking credit for your work, requesting additional performance feedback and asking to be considered for promotion when it is deserved –both men and women (although less so for women) saw positive gains in terms of career progression.

Staying invisible, staying forgotten

If this is indeed the case, then you can’t afford to ignore the art of self-promotion – especially if you’re foreign to America (or any self-promotion rich culture) and a woman. Molinsky suggests that global dexterity, the ability to adapt behavior depending on the cultural setting, is a way to address the challenge. He highlights that self-promotion is one of the six dimensions of cultural difference, and being aware of how self-promotion is viewed can be highly beneficial.

In cultures where self-promotion is not encouraged, the majority of employees believe that hard work alone will suffice in differentiating them from their peers. The issue arises when those employees transition to cultures where standing out from the crowd relies more on proactively seeking recognition. The same is true for women across all cultures who, compared to male peers, are less willing to talk about their achievements but would rather just get on with their work. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s work on sponsorship found that many women “feel that getting ahead based on “connections” is a dirty tactic and that hard work alone is their ticket to the top”. They end up missing out on the potential to build their networks and thereby losing out on additional career advancement opportunities.

These foreign employees and some women fall into the bucket which author, David Zweig, has labeled as “Invisibles”; they are hard workers, full of potential, but lacking the motivation to stand in the spotlight and are sometimes forgotten when it is time for them to be recognized.

Heating up in the spotlight

This lack of affinity for the spotlight may be due to a number of reasons, including a desire to focus on the work at hand, not appreciating the benefit of self-promotion, or having seen self-promotion being done badly and therefore not willing to invest in such tactics. Most of us can point to a situation when we have seen self-promotion going wrong; like all things in life – you can have too much of it.

While putting yourself in the spotlight can have its advantages, leaving the spotlight on you can start to get uncomfortable – not just for you but for those around you. Focusing on “me, me, me” can be positive if there is a purpose, but if it is constant and seen to be bragging or narcissistic (which, according to a study by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, is more prevalent now (25%) compared to 1982 (15%)), it will not have the planned impact.

So how can you self-promote effectively with the desired outcome?

5 Steps to Successful Self-Promotion

Self-promotion is not about bragging or sucking up. Rather it is about ensuring your contributions are acknowledged and credit is given where due. There is a risk of not being recognized appropriately for those who choose not to embrace self-promotion when working in some cultures. Here are 5 practical steps to incorporating self-promotion in your career when working in self-promotion rich cultures or teams.

1. Confirm your objective:

Self-promotion should not be done without an objective in mind. Why do you need to promote yourself at this point? An example of a specific objective might be to highlight specific achievements ahead of your performance management reviews, so you are fairly recognized during appraisals. Without an objective it becomes bragging.

2. Be selective:

Because every act of self-promotion should have a specific objective, it is also important you are clear about who needs to be the recipient of your spiel. Going through the details of your strong performance with your peers will not have the same effect as a similar exercise with your manager. Not everyone needs to know.

3. Take an objective and fact-based approach:

“I’m not good at blowing my own trumpet”. If highlighting your achievements feels like showing off, take a fact-based approach. “The client highlighted that the way I led the delivery was critical to the project’s success” might be easier than “I led a very successful project”. By remaining objective and factual, you may find that it is easier to tell your story.

4. Remember your team:

While you should use “I” where appropriate to take credit for your individual contribution, it is also important to acknowledge contribution from others. Self-promotion should not result in distancing your team.

5. Just say “thank you”:

Being able to confidently accept credit for your work is also important. If others have recognized your contribution, there is no need to be self-deprecating to appear humble. Accept the recognition graciously with a thank you.

For women of all cultures, the above is particularly important. Catalyst reported that “77% of men were somewhat or very satisfied with their progress at increasing their salary compared to only 66% of women” as a result of applying their identified career advancement strategies. Tactics such as self-promotion only go some way to supporting career advancement for women, and while less effective for women than men, they are still worth investing in.

The most important thing to remember about self-promotion is that if you don’t do it, no one else can (or will) do it on your behalf.

By Nneka Orji