February 2023 | 

Beyond Humblebragging: Self-Promotion that Works

Beyond Humblebragging: Self-Promotion that Works

Making sure your manager knows about your accomplishments is one of the necessary duties of organizational life. Advancement and financial rewards depend on it, and yet many find it uncomfortable or not worth the risk of negative consequences. For women, it typically takes even greater effort because of ingrained norms that value modesty and collaboration — norms that persist despite evolving attitudes around other aspects of gender in the workplace. Research shows their reticence is not misplaced: women’s self-promotion efforts can lead to penalties including worse performance reviews. But if doing good work itself isn’t enough, and talking up your efforts or even claiming your own work or ideas can lead to backlash, what’s the answer? It turns out that how you get the word out matters — a lot.

That’s one of the insights presented in Wharton professor Samir Nurmohamed’s MBA course Power and Politics, one he shares in a session in the Women’s Executive Leadership program. “Studies show that strategies like concealing your success or humblebragging, which can be very effective in making your achievements visible without seeming arrogant, tend to be less effective and can even elicit negative reactions for others,” he says. But that’s not the a-ha moment in this session. “Women and minorities know they can face a backlash if they promote their own accomplishments, but they aren’t always aware that changing the way they do it can make a difference,” Nurmohamed says.

Nurmohamed, who studies how people endure, respond, and persist when experiencing adversity at work, says it’s critical to get better at predicting when to expect backlashes and other unintended negative reactions. “You might not have an appetite for it, but power and politics are a part of organizational life. Understanding how they work, what sources of power are available, and how to leverage them is vitally important.” He adds that these concepts and frameworks also apply to people of color and other historically underrepresented groups.

Power in Numbers

In Barack Obama’s White House, some high-ranking women were frustrated by male colleagues who monopolized meetings and downplayed their contributions. Frustrated in their individual efforts to effect change, they decided to work together to raise each others’ voices. In meetings, when one woman shared an idea, another would repeat it, agree with it, or otherwise extoll its merits. This technique, known as amplification, prevented men from ignoring those ideas or claiming them as their own.

According to those former aides, it worked better than expected. “This strategy has been tested by researchers, who found that amplification not only provides value for the person being amplified, but also for the person doing the amplifying,” says Nurmohamed. “Studies show how individuals can play a part in creating change. If you are working in an organization and the scaffolding or norms aren’t there for you to share your successes in a way that creates a positive effect, you aren’t stuck. You can adopt this strategy. That being said, leaders and organizations have a responsibility to create cultures where people feel included, as employees, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, should not have to always take matters into their own hands.”

Benefitting from Diversity

As many organizations work to diversify their workforce and leadership teams, it’s important to understand how easily the ideas and contributions of those hires can be lost. That happens when the status quo means the most assertive team members’ voices drown out the rest, or some are penalized for bringing up their own successes. Leaders can inadvertently perpetuate these outcomes.

But Nurmohamed says change is possible once you become aware of the issue. “If you are leading a team or an organization with diverse members, you can create norms around sharing successes. That could be asking each person in a meeting to share a recent success, or collecting these stories and sharing them in some other form.” It could also be making sure every voice, not only the loudest, is heard.

Being Bolder

That was a key takeaway for Leticia Williams, a senior manager with Vanguard who recently attended Women’s Executive Leadership. “The points Professor Nurmohamed touched on and the way he framed the challenges of being a woman in leadership were no surprise to anyone in the room, but it both served as validation of my own experiences and provided me with a foundation to be bolder in the future.” Williams says even simple, more subtle actions make a difference: “I was in a meeting the other day with three men and three women. The women didn’t speak up because the men kept talking and left no room for input. I jumped in to see if we could involve more voices by shifting the attention to those who had not yet shared their points.”

She continues, “From a leadership perspective, we need to call out the discrepancies and differences in how women are treated in the workplace. The program helped me to feel reenergized to get back out there and fight the good fight knowing that others were tirelessly doing the same. As a leader, I believe it is on us to create opportunities and ladder-in talented people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. That is where our power lies.”