Unless you’re a narcissist, self-promotion isn’t an instinctive behavior. In fact, promoting yourself and your work can feel downright unseemly, like you’re whoring yourself.
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It’s no wonder self-promotion feels so unnatural for most of us: No one likes a braggart, and bragging is one behavior that every culture seems to condemn, from East to West.
“In Asia they have the expression, ‘The tallest nail gets hit first.’ In Australia, it’s called Tall Poppy Syndrome because the tallest poppy gets its head whacked off by a machete,” says Peggy Klaus, a workplace communication and leadership expert, who literally wrote the book on self-promotion. (It’s called Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It.)
If you’re Catholic, add Klaus, then you’ve probably heard the expression, ‘Pride cometh before the fall’, which warns against the sin of arrogance.
Self-promotion can be particularly hard for IT professionals because on top of cultural conditioning, they came out of education systems where the quality of their work spoke for itself—so they didn’t have to, says Jim Anderson, an IT consultant. To an IT pro, promoting your work feels like you’re putting your left shoe on your right foot, adds Curt Rosengren, a career coach who previously worked in the technology industry.
As loath as we may be to beat our chests and preen our feathers at work, we have to, especially if we want to survive this economic downturn with our jobs intact, career experts say.
“1.2 million people are out of work, and it’s only going to get worse,” says Klaus. “You need to let people know what it is that you’re doing, the success you’re having, the obstacles you’ve overcome, the projects you’re completing, so that when those layoffs are being contemplated, you come to mind as a person they need to retain.”
Klaus makes a good point: We need to tell our bosses what we’re working on and what we’ve accomplished. That’s self-promotion at its most basic, and it has nothing to do with bluster or bombast, but everything to do with facts. And we don’t have to feel dirty about facts.
“Your bosses aren’t psychic,” says Klaus. “Bosses tell me, ‘I have 70 people I oversee. I don’t know what each one is doing. They need to let me know.”
Still need more encouragement? These eight techniques will help you promote yourself in the office without looking obnoxious. You don’t have to implement all of them. Selecting even just a few of them that are appropriate for your work environment will give you a good start.
1. Seize opportunities to self-promote.
How many times has your boss asked you, “What’s up?” Chances are, says Klaus, you’ve answered, “Not much,” every time.
“Usually people are woefully unprepared to answer that question, and they blow an opportunity with their boss,” she says.
Instead, Klaus recommends taking the opportunity to say work is great and to speak about the progress of your latest project or of a recent accomplishment.
Performance reviews present another golden opportunity for self-promotion. If there’s only one time you feel comfortable giving yourself a pat on the back, let it be during your performance review. Come prepared with a list of accomplishments, projects completed, challenges overcome and feedback from peers. If you miss this chance to promote yourself, you probably don’t deserve a raise or a promotion.
2. Help others as you promote yourself.
It’s one thing to get your work done early and let your boss know that you’ve beat another deadline. Even more effective than that is saying to your boss—and to your peers—that you’re available to help other people get their work done, too, says Jim Anderson, the IT consultant. This technique is effective because it wins you friends and demonstrates your value to your boss.
Similarly, if you’ve got a particular skill or talent that you want to promote around the office, make it available to others, says Anderson. For example, if you’re good at PowerPoint and you know someone who needs to give a presentation, offer to look at their slides and spruce them up, he says. The person you help out will be grateful and will be inclined to recommend you to others.
3. Speak with energy.
The hang-up most people have with self-promotion has to do with the fact that they don’t like to talk about themselves, particularly in the context of greatness. So it’s helpful to think of self-promotion not as talking about yourself, but as talking about your work. And if you’re enthusiastic about your work, self-promotion becomes that much easier, notes Curt Rosengren, the career coach.
“If you’re talking about a technology or project that you’re passionate about, the self-promotion becomes a byproduct of the passion,” he says.
Passion is infectious, notes Klaus. People catch on to it. They respond to it, and they remember it.
4. Tell a story.
Self-promotion can easily come across as a litany of “I’s”: I lead a global team of 5,000 IT professionals. I consolidated five data centers down to one. I received an MBA from Harvard. It’s the Hilary Clinton model of self-promotion. It’s also bad bragging, says Klaus. “It’s a rolling resume. It’s boring and self-aggrandizing,” she says.
A better approach:Weave your accomplishments into a pithy little narrative, says Klaus. For example, if you turned around a failing software implementation, you could sum up in a few sentences why the project was failing and what needed to be done to get it back on track.
5. Take cues from your audience.
Leadership experts say the way you promote your work should mirror the tone and style of your audience—whomever you’re trying to impress. For example, says Russ Edelman, the author of Nice Guys Can Get the Corner Office (Portfolio 2008), if your boss is a charismatic leader, your self-promotional efforts should match his energy and dynamism. If you act humbly, you may not make your point.
Similarly, watch out for situations in which it would be inappropriate to discuss your accomplishments. For example, says Klaus, if you earned a promotion the same day a layoff was announced inside your organization, it’s not a good idea to tell people in the office about your promotion that day.
6. Brag about others.
If you’re uncomfortable promoting yourself, you can try talking up other people’s work and hope the good karma comes back to you. But subtly promoting yourself at the same time that you applaud others is most effective.
“I’m a big proponent of bragging about your colleagues and your boss, but you can’t assume that it’s going to come back to you,” says Klaus. “No one comes into work and says, ‘Gee, what can I do for Peggy today.’ They’re thinking about themselves. To assume that people will do it for you is erroneous.”
That’s why you should try a technique that Jim Anderson recommends. He says to use other people’s good work to remind people of your good work. For example, if you toiled on a project with someone who went above and beyond the call of duty, Anderson says to talk about how their great work enabled you to do great work.
“Don’t say, ‘She did a good job. I did a better job’,” says Anderson. That’s one-upmanship, and it’s bad bragging. “Say, ‘She made things easier for me.'”
7. Make good feedback stick.
If you get an e-mail from a co-worker or customer complimenting you on a job well done, forward it to your boss. Anderson recommends adding a comment to the e-mail you forward, so that your boss feels compelled to respond, such as, ‘I think this is something we discussed in my review. Do you agree?’ or ‘Another satisfied customer, don’t you think?’
“Don’t just send the e-mail as is. Add some part of you to it,” says Anderson. “If it’s a read and delete, it’s not going to stick. If you get your boss to read, think and respond to your e-mail, it has a good chance of sticking.”
8. Benchmark yourself.
One subtle yet effective way to express how valuable an employee you are is to benchmark your work against others doing similar work, whether inside or outside your organization, says Nice Guys author Russ Edelman. Without naming names, compare the work you do on a weekly or monthly basis to your peers in aggregate. That way, you show how much of an asset you are, by highlighting the contrast between you and others.
Approaching self-promotion as a benchmarking exercise makes self-promotion more objective, and thus, it feels less smarmy. Objectivity is something that IT professionals are very comfortable with, says Edelman.
Self-Promotion as self-preservation
If, after reading through these eight techniques, you still don’t feel comfortable tooting your own horn, that’s your choice. But realize that if you don’t talk up your accomplishments, you not only decrease your chances of getting promoted, but also decrease your chances of hanging onto your job.
“Whoever takes the time to promote themselves will get the deal or will earn the promotion,” Anderson says, “because they’ve made a nice package of themselves that makes it easy for the decision-maker to choose them.”