Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To Brag or Not to Brag

You just got word that you've landed a prestigious grant.  Do you:

a) keep the news to yourself and only reluctantly admit your good fortune when pressed?


b) shout the news from the rooftops?

This is a trick question.  Most people think that these two extreme options are the only choices, but they don't have to be.

My previous post got me thinking (again) about self-promotion--the pros and cons.  If you remain quiet, hoping that people will notice your accomplishments, you risk being overlooked when plum assignments or jobs come along.  On the other hand, if you talk about your successes and put yourself in the spotlight, you may alienate colleagues.

Women are particularly sensitive (in general) to the criticism of being a bragger.  My generation was taught that it was not "lady-like" to talk about yourself.  A lot of this revolved around not "up-staging" your brothers, boyfriends or husbands.  Women were more likely to attribute their successes to other people and to smile modestly when complimented.  Men seemed to be natural at self-promotion.  They strutted around (peacocks come to mind) with chests puffed out.  I was somewhat mystified as to how they managed to get away with this behavior, but had no real desire to emulate them.  I was content to let my accomplishments speak for me.

Only in the past few years have I begun to question this viewpoint.  Actually, an event triggered my change of mind.  I was chastised by a male superior for submitting an announcement of a prestigious award I had just received to our public relations office--because I "might make co-workers jealous".  I was flabbergasted.  After recovering from the initial shock, I told him that his statement was a classic put-down designed to keep women out of the spotlight.  I pointedly asked why he had not similarly criticized male co-workers for announcing less important accomplishments.  Then I offered to send him literature on gender inequality in the workplace.  I've subsequently proceeded to file other newsworthy items whenever I could (and encouraged other females to do the same).

I think there is a middle-ground when it comes to self-promotion.  However, since such behavior does not come naturally to me, I'm still struggling to refine my skills in this area.  Fortunately, I have a good role model.  My husband is one of those self-promoters who sneaks up and wins you over without your ever realizing what he's doing.  He doesn't go around bragging about himself, but instead knows how to connect with people and to convey an air of trustworthiness and confidence.  When he talks, he comes across as honest and authentic.  So when he mentions some recent accomplishment, it seems to be a natural part of the conversation, and not a brag bomb dropped onto the listener.

Our world is a competitive place and is constantly undergoing change.  If people in your university or department don't know who you are and what your accomplishments are, you could find yourself left out of important meetings, passed over for promotion, or on the list of people who wouldn't be missed in the event of layoffs.  You may feel safe because you keep your adviser or immediate supervisor updated regularly, but they could leave the organization.  Would other decision-makers in your organization have the same high opinion of you?  

In the upcoming posts, I'd like to explore this topic, trying to work through some of the ways in which women can promote themselves--without seeming to be obnoxious or self-serving.


Anonymous said...

I'm realizing the only thing I can do is avoid insecure babies whenever possible, which is like walking a landmine zone in my current office. Since they are good at poking around my desk while I am gone, I'll start hanging up award letters and publications for subtle notification. Hell, I might stick my updated CV on the wall every month. Curious to read your ideas.

Piers said...

This is a difficult one. Trying to establish credentials and authority is a necesary part of being a scientist but bragging puts people off.

I find that just being confident will still cause people to put you in the bragging column. Consequently, it is pretty normal to have a few people react negatively to even the slightest effort at communicating any successes, though I suspect it is sometimes because they have so few of their own. There is no way to please everyone here.