Winning the Self-Promotion Game at Work
Winning the Self-Promotion Game at Work

Gone is the era of hoping your boss will notice all your hard work without prompting and reward you accordingly. Nowadays if you want the raise or promotion, you’ll have to spend some time extolling your own virtues.

Unfortunately, many of us would rather pass a kidney stone than shine a spotlight on ourselves — and not everyone who’s comfortable with self-promotion knows when to stop talking.

The good news is that calling attention to your accomplishments in a way that doesn’t make you (or your coworkers) cringe is an attainable skill, no matter what your personality type or rung on the corporate ladder. The trick is to do it in a low-key manner that feels more conversational than hyperbolic.

Following are four common yet problematic styles of self-promotion in the workplace, with suggested tweaks from two expert career coaches.

The Dormouse

You’re good at your job and you know it. Outwardly, though, you’re humble to a fault. Maybe it’s your upbringing. Maybe it’s your personality. Whatever the reason, you’re simply not inclined to call attention to yourself. Doing so makes you want to slough off a couple layers of skin with a cheese grater.

THE CHALLENGE: Waiting for someone to notice and praise your accomplishments at work can be like waiting for Godot — you may be waiting a very long time, perhaps indefinitely. As much as this may pain you to accept, you have to be your own best advocate if you want to get a leg up at work.

THE SOLUTION: The good news is that a number of dignified horn-tooting tactics exist. If a customer emails to praise your work on a recent project, you could forward the message to your boss with a matter-of-fact note crediting your entire team. A quick “Sounds like [Hotshot New Account] is pleased with our efforts so far — see below” should do the trick. Alternatively, you could ask a peer to convey news of this recent victory to the boss on your behalf.

Another tactic is to tell your manager about the recent win in person. But don’t merely relay your dragonslaying tale, suggests Dr. Cherry Collier, managing partner of the executive-coaching firm Personality Matters. Ask your boss for any pointers they can offer for solving this type of problem in the future.

“That way, you’re not bragging so much as sharing a story with them,” Collier explains. “And you’re asking for their recommendations on how to make your efforts even more successful next time.”

The Overeager Newbie

You’re new to the company — and perhaps workplaces in general — and want to hit the ground running. You’re well aware of the need to document your professional successes and share them with others. But you’re not sure how soon to start tooting your horn and how much attention you should call to yourself.

THE CHALLENGE: It’s natural to want to prove your value right away. But if you start crowing about all your good deeds your first week on the job, you’re liable to raise a few eyebrows. Worse, you may overstep your bounds and anger those whose turf you’ve encroached on.

THE SOLUTION: As the new kid at the watercooler, your safest bet is to get the lay of the land before you start broadcasting your achievements.

“It’s smart to lurk a bit at first,” says Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli, owner of VocationVillage.com, a career coaching firm.

She advises spending a few weeks asking questions, identifying management’s expectations of you and observing the promotional style of peers who appear to have the boss’ ear.

When ready to start announcing your wins, model the communication style of your colleagues. “You don't want to be jarringly different before you know how your message will be received,” Scarborough Civitelli says.

Collier agrees, warning against being the newcomer who quickly suggests replacing half the tools and processes the team already has in place.

“You don’t know how many times they tried to change something but found that the update didn’t work,” Collier says.

The idea is to come across as helpful, not someone who duplicates past efforts or makes more work for others.

The Overly Humble Veteran

You’ve been with your employer several years, and you’ve consistently done solid work and amassed an impressive amount of institutional knowledge there. Your colleagues frequently ask you to help solve complex problems and you’re more than happy to oblige.

But rather than praise your accomplishments, your boss seems either indifferent to your performance or critical of it. What’s more, your recent raises have been scant, and you haven’t had a promotion in several years. You feel overlooked and underappreciated, especially when colleagues with less seniority zoom past you on the corporate ladder.

THE CHALLENGE: For whatever reason, your boss doesn’t have your back and isn’t singing your praises within the company. As a savvy worker, you’ve taken your boss’ feedback to heart, made the requested adjustments and solicited new input from them every so often. Despite this, they continue to treat you like chopped liver.

THE SOLUTION: If all your efforts to meet your boss’ priorities get you nowhere, it’s time to cultivate other champions within the company. Collier suggests building relationships with those you can learn from and enlighten about your contributions to the business. This might mean developing a closer working relationship with your manager’s peers. It might even mean getting to know your boss’ boss a bit better.

“You want to make sure that you have enough people willing to wave your flag when you’re not in the room,” Collier explains.

Also be sure you’re not resting on the laurels of past successes. Sprucing up your skillset can help rekindle some of the old excitement that management, your boss included, felt upon hiring you. For example, you could share with your team the cutting-edge industry knowledge you acquired at a recent conference and explain how those new ideas and tools could improve your collective efforts.

“Even a beautiful Ford Mustang needs a tune-up from time to time,” Collier says.

The talents you bring to the table are no different.

The Megaphone

Every workplace has a shameless braggart who takes self-promotion too far. Unfortunately, if the office blowhard is you, you may not realize that your colleagues view you as more of an egomaniac than a team player. This is not the professional image you want to cultivate.

THE CHALLENGE: As ambitious professionals, we’re beaten over the head with the notion that we must advocate for ourselves at work (case in point: this article). Knowing how others perceive you can be difficult, especially if your colleagues don’t offer feedback and you’re unaccustomed to self-reflection. Pat yourself on the back a bit too enthusiastically and you could alienate the coworkers you hope to win over.

THE SOLUTION: Fortunately there are some tell-tale signs you’re tooting your own horn a bit too loudly. If you find yourself isolated, ignored, demoted or repeatedly scolded, your coworkers may consider you more self-serving than collaborative, Scarborough Civitelli warns. Conversely, she says, “you can tell you've struck the right tone when you are being rewarded by bonuses, raises, promotions and preferred assignments.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re fortunate enough to be comfortable with and adept at the self-promotion game. And let’s say you’ve been duly rewarded by your employer as a result. If you’re not also shining a spotlight on your peers, you’re doing it wrong.

“Think about how you can be more inclusive and bring your teammates along with you,” Collier says.

Sharing the limelight is a good start. But if you notice a softer-spoken teammate struggling to call attention to their own achievements, gently show them how it’s done.

There’s always room for one more star to shine in the office.


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Michelle Goodman

Guest writer Michelle Goodman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Seattle. Her books — The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life — offer an irreverent twist on the traditional career guide. She specializes in writing about work, entrepreneurship and career change.

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