By Rachel Feintzeig
Jan. 30, 2023 12:01 am ET
Nobody likes a braggart. But what if your inability to thump your chest, even just a little, is
holding you back?
Talking yourself up can make your boss and team look good, make clear what you actually do all day,
and maybe prompt someone to put you up for that promotion.
Still, few of us aspire to be the office blowhard. So we volley compliments with
a self-deprecating comment or resort to the false humility of a humblebrag. (Flying on the
corporate jet to the board meeting was all right, but I missed you all!)
“The fear of bragging strikes all the wrong people,” says Meredith Fineman, author of “Brag
Better.” In her prior work as a publicist, she was struck by the many talented professionals who,
no matter how high they climbed, were loath to acknowledge their accomplishments.
“We aren’t going to get those loud people to be quiet,” she says, adding that women especially fear
being seen as “too much.” “It’s a matter of getting those ‘qualified
quiet’ to turn up the volume.”
Tout your wins in a way that’s gracious and effective, helpful but not jerky. Ross Cavanaugh, who
works for a technology company from his home near Charlotte, N.C., says he shares the details of
his accomplishments—how exactly he found a bug in the project, what steps his team took to beat
that deadline—so others can have similar success.
He says he also gives shout-outs to those who helped him achieve a goal—even better if he had some
friction with them behind the scenes. They’re often surprised and flattered to be name-checked, he
says. Afterward, they’re easier to work with and respond faster to his requests on future projects.
“The ROI is incredible,” he says.
Don’t Fear the ‘I’ Word
When litigation consultant Alexis Knutson sent her professional bio to her new boss for inclusion
in the company newsletter last fall, he was underwhelmed. She’d kept it simple, listing off her
education and past jobs. Try it again, but with swagger, he
“It’s all about selling yourself,” Ms. Knutson, who lives in central Washington, says.
In jobs where you have to win clients, they need reasons to choose you.
She added details about the notable professor she studied with in graduate school and described
herself as a fierce advocate for her clients. She’s also trying to accept compliments with thanks
rather than a shrug. She scans emails she’s about to send for the word “we,” making sure it
shouldn’t actually be an “I.”
“Sometimes it was really just you,” she says. “I was able to get this done for you.”
The word “I” still haunts Jodi Brown Lindo, who works in higher education in the
Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. Growing up in the Caribbean, Ms. Brown Lindo says she
was raised to be humble. Her Christian faith underscores the same virtue.
“You don’t brag about what you do. You work hard and you will be rewarded,” she says. An email that
has “I” in it more than once makes her wonder, “Am I not being a good team player?”
Own Your Story
Ms. Brown Lindo’s mentor, a former colleague who ascended the ranks swiftly, helped her prepare
talking points for approaching her boss about a raise and removed hedging language from her email
drafts. Now when she gets a compliment, she acknowledges the breadth of the win and gives kudos to
others who contributed.
If you don’t tell your own story, “people will just make up their own version,” says Aliza Licht,
whose coming book, “On Brand,” teaches readers how to market themselves. One common networking
mistake: relying too heavily on where you work at the moment, which Ms. Licht dubs “last name
syndrome.” Instead of building a reputation as, say, Jack Brown, you become “Jack from Target.”
You don’t have to look like you’re trying to outshine your organization. Try laying out the amazing
work you’ve done, explain how it’s positively affected your firm, and wrap up with, “Now I’m excited
to take on more,” Ms. Licht suggests.
In places such as LinkedIn, she recommends promoting five other people for each self-focused post
“When you make it just about yourself, that’s when everyone is, like, ‘OK, she needs to be quiet,’”
Ms. Licht says. “People start to root against you.”
Drop the Humblebrag
Whatever you do, avoid humblebragging. Faux humility usually fools no one. Research from Harvard
Business School professor Michael Norton and two co-authors found that humblebraggers were seen as
less competent and likable than those who just straight-up boasted.
In one study, participants were asked to sign a petition. When the person seeking signatures
boasted offhand that they got their dream internship as well as funding to travel to Paris, 86%
agreed to sign. When the person concluded with a humblebrag—“Ugh, it’s so hard to decide which one
to choose!”—65% signed.
“Not only do we not like you for bragging, but we don’t like you for being dishonest
and insincere,” Dr. Norton says.