Sunday, September 12, 2010
Bragging by Proxy
Most of us have/had proud parents who took every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen about how clever, cute, wonderful their little Jimmy or Cathy was. They even continue doing this after we reach adulthood: "My daughter's a famous scientist who's working on a cure for cancer!" No one questions the right of parents to be proud of their children, and everyone listens patiently while people extol the virtues of their little geniuses. We, the children, may feel a little embarrassed at times when Mom announces for the zillionth time to a total stranger how her daughter is doing research that may save the planet. But we don't try to stop her because we are secretly thrilled that someone thinks so highly of us and is announcing to the world what we, without social constraints, would do ourselves.
Young children who have not yet learned to restrain their self-adoration will often announce things like, "My family is richer than yours!" or "I'm getting a pony for my birthday....and you're not!" A common theme of this bragging is to announce the child's superiority over others. Most children quickly learn from their parents, however, that this self-aggrandizement is not socially acceptable: "Heather, don't say that! People won't like you if you brag about yourself." Our parents take up the baton and do our bragging for us, however, so we soon learn that we can still get the attention we crave by letting someone else do the dirty work for us.
I never realized how important my own parent's unqualified cheerleading was until they were gone. I remember thinking at my father's funeral a few months after my mother's, "Who's going tell me how great I am now?" My parents were not excessively vocal about me and my accomplishments, although they were clearly proud of me (later in life at least--they weren't so sure in the early years when I was keeping snakes and spiders in my bedroom). I never anticipated how much I would miss having someone who thought so highly of me--no matter what.
In our professional world, our bosses, teachers, mentors, and advisers take on the role of proud parents. Sort of. These people don't give their unqualified approval just because we work for them. We have to earn their respect, which is not always easy. In some cases, it proves impossible. No matter how good we are, our adviser or boss never seems to be impressed. How do we react to this failure to recognize our greatness? Usually, we feel rejected and resentful and begin behaving badly.
Is there some other way to deal with this situation?
One alternative is self-promotion. You can find ways to convey your worth to your superiors, coworkers, and others in the workplace. Continue to exude enthusiasm for your work and tell anyone who'll listen about how excited you are about your recent breakthrough or an invitation to speak in a special symposium. The key is to be genuinely excited about it.
Don't be a pest about it, though. And reciprocate. Ask your co-workers or fellow students about their accomplishments. Tell them how happy you are about their successes. Then it's easier for you to say, "I know exactly how you feel. I was so excited about getting my first NSF grant that I couldn't sleep!"
Some people think that if they brag about others or nominate them for awards, that they will reciprocate. Don't count on it. Even if they do, it may backfire. And be especially careful about mutual arrangements designed to advance your career. I remember, many years ago, helping my boss assess applicants for membership in a prestigious scientific academy. He was on the selection panel and had 50 to 60 applicants to evaluate. I had the idea to collate various data about each applicant--on their publications, etc. into a table to make it a bit easier to compare everyone. One item I included in the table was the name of the person who nominated each applicant. Low and behold, there were two guys who had nominated each other. Their resumes were respectable and both had had a chance to be inducted--before I uncovered their plan. My boss, upon seeing this, immediately disqualified them both.
I've had colleagues ask me to nominate them for some award or other honor. My experience is, however, that when you have to solicit someone to put you up for an award, it is likely that you don't have the credentials to succeed (otherwise, people would nominate you without any nudging). And if you ask a colleague or friend who is reluctant to nominate you, they may feel put upon to write a recommendation that they do not wholeheartedly believe in. They may do their best, but will still be limited by your resume--they are not going to exaggerate on your behalf. So, if you do ask such a favor, be certain that you qualify and that your nominator is just as enthusiastic about you as you feel you deserve. If they hesitate at all, you should withdraw your request.
In the long-run, however, it's best to manage your reputation primarily through self-promotion. There may be occasions in which others will sing your praises. If these come your way, accept the compliment, possibly keeping a record of their statement. For example, if you are a scientific consultant and a client makes glowing statements about your work, you might use their words in your next performance review. When asked by your boss to summarize your projects for the preceding year, you might say something like, "My work for Company X was highly regarded. The CEO personally said, 'Mary's design was critical to the successful outcome of the project. I'll definitely call upon her in the future to help with similar problems.'"
In the next post, I'll cover some ways to get started building an effective "brag sheet".