Smarter Working

Prove Yourself, Don’t Embarrass Yourself

Social media and a shaky performance-review system are creating an epidemic of bragging workers.

4 min read

“You don’t have to do anything special to be loved” —Fred Rogers

Matt can’t understand for the life of him why he hasn’t moved up the ladder. Ensconced in consumer marketing, he had all the numbers to prove success. In fact, just ask him: He’s brought up business by more than 10%, cut his budget by even more, and tapped at least five good hires. Not to mention his clever ideas. (His boss particularly liked the one about commissioning murals all over town depicting a three-eyed dog.)

And that’s the problem. Nobody knows how to broadcast his success better than Matt. If there were experts coaching him, they’d tell him he’s bumped into a classic career staller: He’s too eager to prove himself.

“If people know you’re aware of your rude behavior, they’re more likely to give you a pass.” ”

Studies have found self-promotion in the workplace often backfires, because braggers often underestimate the effect it has on others. Data from one study showed nearly 77% of recipients who hear braggers experienced negative emotions. Annoyance is, of course, a big one. Interestingly, about 15% of braggers themselves experienced negative emotions; they know it’s hurting them but can’t help themselves.

While swaggering is hardly new, social media has created a culture that certainly fuels self-promoting outside—and consequently inside—the office. Workers have more reason to feel insecure as well, since feedback is shrinking as managers get stuck with a higher number of direct reports. A lot of “face time” with a boss is limited to email or texting.

What’s more, many pros pin the problem on the gradual demise of effective performance reviews—the legitimate time to reel off accomplishments. It’s no wonder then that workers find themselves “mansplaining” their accolades—regardless of their gender. “One of the things people tend to not remember, or not do, is to state their intention before making a statement,” says David Popple, a corporate psychologist. “Without that, people don’t have a frame or context to interpret what you’re saying.”

To be sure, reversing the tendency to show off can be very hard for some, but we talked to some experts on subtle ways to get noticed without coming off as the office blowhard.

Be self-aware and offer an explanation.

Admit to yourself and to others that you’re grandstanding, and some measure of forgiveness may follow. “If people know you’re aware of your rude or aggressive behavior, they’re more likely to give you a pass,” Popple says. The trick, though, is to be sincere and state your intention. If you’ve interrupted a colleague, ask for forgiveness and say it’s only because you’re afraid you’ll forget—then give a fantastic idea.

Ask for more performance reviews.

Yes, you read that right. One of the biggest reasons performance reviews are criticized is because they are too infrequent and therefore can’t touch on all aspects of an employee’s work, leaving managers to drum up things that can be improved upon, instead of things that have already been accomplished. “Organizations realize that managing business performance is a very dynamic process, so having a once-per-year meeting that hopes to both evaluate and improve performance is a tall ask,” says Korn Ferry senior client partner Katie Lemaire. “It is still critical that employees receive regular feedback and companies have the opportunity to re-evaluate their processes.”

So instead of waiting until performance-review time, try to prod your boss on a frequent basis so your periodic accomplishments stand out. That may reduce the insecurities and let you push forward without having to wave your hands and tell everyone what you did.

Find a cheerleader.

It’s a great mantra: Above all is others. Ask a mentor or colleague to help highlight your accomplishments—so long as you do the same for them. Say something like, “I want us both to be recognized for the hard work we’ve done. When it’s appropriate, maybe we can put in a good word about each other to the boss?” Research shows when we say nice things about our colleagues, it helps us find purpose in our own work. So then maybe we won’t have to brag, as much, after all.

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