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Why self-promotion doesn't have to be taboo
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Many of us instinctively hate the idea of blowing our own trumpets. Yet it's important to understand how best to highlight our skills – especially now.
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The mere idea of self-promotion makes many people wince. Trumpet-blowing is something a lot of us aren’t good at and that’s no surprise, given we’re taught as children that ‘boasting’ isn’t an attractive quality. “We get hung up on self-promotion coming across as arrogant,” explains Stefanie Sword-Williams, author of F*ck Being Humble: Why Self Promotion Isn’t a Dirty Word. “But if you’re not an arrogant person, you won’t deliver it in that way.” 

In fact, taking pride in your professional accomplishments should be considered a normal part of life, not a taboo, experts say. Highlighting your skills well can feed into workplace success, and whether you’re changing jobs, want to move up at work or show your boss what you’ve been achieving, being able to self-promote effectively is an advantage.  

Right now, the need to ‘self-sell’ has arguably never been greater, as pandemic-hit businesses weigh up what they do – and don’t – need going forward. It’s particularly true for some groups; women, who traditionally struggle to promote themselves, have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 recession, for example. Home workers could also benefit; research shows that they suffer from a lack of face-to-face time with managers, which negatively impacts career progression

“If we don’t invest the time in demonstrating our value, we run the risk of not being considered as ‘needed’,” explains Sword-Williams. “The content you put out about yourself is what you will be known for – so it’s essential that you control that narrative.” 

Post-pandemic, how we promote ourselves could help determine whether we thrive in the workplace or linger, overlooked, on the side lines. That means overcoming squeamishness and learning how to explain our skillset properly. Fortunately, it’s something we can all master.    

The self-promotion gender gap 

In its simplest form, self-promotion is the act of drawing attention to your work and achievements. Whether it’s a post shared on your LinkedIn, an email check-in with your boss or a conversation with an important contact, self-promotion shines a spotlight on your successes with a view to developing a personal brand, furthering a career or asserting yourself in your field. It’s a skill that’s as important for someone trying to get on the employment ladder as it is for a CEO.

If we don’t invest the time in demonstrating our value, we run the risk of not being considered as ‘needed’ – Stefanie Sword-Williams

Perhaps unsurprisingly, evidence shows that men engage in it more than women. Indeed, a 2019 study by two US-based academics identified a “large gender gap” in this area. The researchers asked participants to take a maths and science test, and then to rate their performance. Participants were told that how they rated themselves would be communicated to an employer, who would use just that information to decide who to hire and what to pay them. Although men and women performed equally well, men gave themselves an average of 61 out of 100, while women gave themselves 46.

“Lots of separate studies show that men tend to ‘boast’ about their achievements when asked, while women tend to under-report their achievements and abilities,” says Annabelle Williams, author of Why Women Are Poorer Than Men (And What We Can Do About It). “When they’re growing up, girls are penalised socially for boasting or behaving assertively. There are words like ‘diva’, ‘feisty’ and ‘bossy’ that are only really used to describe females, while the same behaviour in men is seen as showing confidence and leadership abilities.”

Updating your boss regularly on what you're working on is a good place to start, experts say (Credit: Alamy)

Updating your boss regularly on what you're working on is a good place to start, experts say (Credit: Alamy)

Part of the problem, explains Sword-Williams, is that we lack female role models in senior positions to tell us that it’s OK to celebrate our successes. “As a result, women feel the need to be highly competent in something before they can shout it from the rooftops. Women also have the ‘disease to please’, so rather than overestimating and under-delivering, they’d rather underestimate and hope they can reach the standard required.” 

Of course, some women are naturals at promoting their achievements, while some men struggle with it; one recent survey also showed younger women are more comfortable with it than older women. Self-promotion can also come with a downside; get your delivery or your platform wrong and it can be considered annoying bragging, eliminating scope for benefits. It may also not impress your employer, depending on his or her personality type

‘Make it a habit’ 

Yet given that judicious self-promotion can pay dividends, it’s worth putting in some practise, particularly now that many of us are working in relative isolation from home. Reaching out to a major client or approaching your boss about a promotion might seem alien when you’re preparing to do it from behind your computer screen rather than in person, but there are risks inherent in doing nothing. 

“We have to build time for self-promotion into our working schedule,” explains Harriet Minter, author of Working From Home: How To Build A Career You Love When You’re Not In The Office. “If we don’t, we risk becoming out of sight and out of mind. If it makes it easier, just think of it as keeping people up to date with what you’re doing. If you were managing someone, you’d want to know what they were doing, right?” 

Sword-Williams agrees, adding: “Speak to your bosses about how they’d like to be updated on your progress. Being proactive and providing this information saves them time and also gives you a paper-trail to refer back to for things like performance reviews. The worst thing is sitting around and hoping they’ll have noticed your hard work – so at a time where they can’t physically see it, it’s up to you to remind them.”

If it makes it easier, just think of it as keeping people up to date with what you’re doing – Harriet Minter

Much like any new skill, you need to learn, develop and practise flexing your self-promotion muscles until using them feels comfortable. “Make a habit of talking to your boss about your long-term career aspirations,” advises Minter. “Don’t be put off by the idea that ‘now isn’t a good time’. Instead, look at the value you’ve brought to the company and put your request in those terms.” 

Minter suggests that email is the go-to mode for sharing successes with your employers, noting: “You can take the time to word it in the best possible way and make sure you include all the detail you want to. See if you can get into the habit of sending at least one a week – the more you do it, the easier it will become.” 

If you’d prefer something more subtle, consider putting yourself forward as a mentor, whether for younger colleagues or for industry peers. Sharing your expertise and acting as a sounding board for those just starting out is a great way to show the skills and experience you’ve accumulated. It’s also worth keeping a note of your achievements; not only will it remind you of your talents, but it will also give you quick reference points if an opportunity to discuss them in the workplace crops up.   

Ensuring any digital presence reflects your up-to-date skills and expertise is a must, while keeping an eye out for other people’s ‘achievement announcements’ on LinkedIn and Twitter can help you ascertain the style of ‘sharing’ you do or don’t like. (“Just avoid the ‘#humblebrag’ route,” says Sword-Williams. “It immediately undermines the purpose of self-promotion.”) 

If the thought of self-promotion still makes you want to curl up into a ball, reframing it in your mind could help you get past that initial hesitation. 

“I explain to a lot of people that it’s just a form of storytelling,” says Sword-Williams. “You just have to decide how you want to tell your story. When we explain how we achieved something, it allows other people to either feel part of the process – or like they could achieve something similar.”

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