It's time to toot your own horn, because no one else is going to do it
“If you don’t toot your own horn, you won’t be heard in a sea of cubicles”
There probably isn’t a more stress sweat-inducing phrase in the English-speaking world than “Tell me about yourself?” Even though experts tell us to do otherwise, we often define ourselves by our jobs. A writer, an architect, a homemaker, a teacher – yet when it comes to our professional lives, most women get squeamish talking about their achievements.
We have a bouquet of verbal confetti at the ready when a friend gets their desired promotion. When our kid doesn’t win the school competition, we rattle off a long list of their other accomplishments and talents to talk them up. But when it comes to giving ourselves that kind of admiration, appreciation and self-promotion, it’s as if an undercooked gulab jamun is stuck in our throats. Switching back to our default mode – modesty.
The modest woman doesn’t brag or boast about all the things she’s good at. She doesn’t talk about the hours she’s put in to make her company/workplace a success. She’s composed and demure, with a humble nod and poised cheer for everyone on her team. She keeps her head down and gets the task done – in the end, the work she has done will speak for itself, after all.
That’s a common belief that several Tweak readers also shared with us.
About 84% of 487 readers said they feel awkward talking about their achievements and talents. One comment stood out though. “However, if there is a need, I think we should speak for ourselves in a very humble way and without belittling the other people. Keeping your success to yourself can also be a problem, feel worthy of it and present it in an authentic way,” said one woman.
It’s that last notion that Raj Dua, former HR head at one of the country’s biggest advertising companies, also echoes, stating, “‘Shameless self-promotion’ has become a common phrase now, laced with negative connotations. But whether in a work or a personal setting, there are no mind readers.” He points out that everyone has multiple things on their daily schedules, so don’t assume your hard work and effort are going to stand out and grab attention. “You need to talk about yourself, what you’re doing and what you could do in the future because it’s not going to magically pop into your reporting manager’s head.” Dua believes this tendency is one of the reasons why women lose out on a lot of opportunities.”
Unfortunately for women, self-promotion can be a double-edged sword. Don’t do it enough and you’re overlooked at the workplace. Do it too much and you’re batted down for constantly blowing smoke up your behind.
Why do women find self-promotion so tricky?
A study done by Rutgers University’s department of psychology found that women experience “social and economic penalties (i.e., backlash) for self-promotion, a behaviour that violates female gender stereotypes yet is necessary for professional success.” The fear keeps us from talking ourselves up and putting ourselves out there for big projects and promotions. At play are also the social gender norms against braggadocious behaviours.
“For men, it’s hailed as positive ambition and a search for upward mobility at work. Whereas for women, it’s framed as ‘she’s too ambitious, bossy or boastful’. It’s ingrained in us to a point where it’s often women who have this thought pop up as a reflex when another woman is talking about something she has achieved, ‘Who does she think she is?’ There’s a lot we as women also need to unlearn,” says psychologist Sharvee Thakur.
While researching for her book Take Courage! author and leadership coach Dr Margie Warrell started interviewing successful professionals in different fields. “Without exception, they’ve all said that unless someone is willing to be their own advocate, to let people know not just what they are capable of doing, and more importantly, what they want to do, they will be hard-pressed to fulfil their professional aspirations.”
There is a risk that some people out there will be rubbed the wrong way. But what you have to lose – career growth, promotions, networking opportunities – is far greater than what someone may potentially think of you.
“If you don’t toot your own horn, you won’t be heard in a sea of cubicles,” says author Roberta Matuson. But we also understand that awkwardness and our natural self-preservation reflexes are hard to break. So we suggest starting with some simple expert-recommended ‘strategic bragging’, as Matuson phrases it in an interview.
Kapur says to think of self-promotion as a validating act that celebrates your achievements. “You’re not doing this to stroke your own ego, or making things up to make yourself sound better to others. It’s all based in fact.” With constant competition in the workplace, women need to learn to become their own cheerleaders and toot their horns as if they’re stuck in peak office traffic.
7 tips to master the art of self-promotion
Don’t deflect compliments, use them as a conversation starter
The first thing that all the experts said is that we need to start getting comfortable with compliments. Instead of minimising or deflecting them as ‘team effort’ or ‘not a big deal’, a simple thank you will do. Add to that a question that can become a conversation starter to build a better relationship with your superiors.
For example, if you manage to snag a big brand deal and your manager praises you, thank them, then can ask, “What aspect of the negotiation do you think was the most effective?” You can ask them for feedback; “Is there anything that you would have done differently?”
Asking for feedback shows that you are engaged in your work, and are seeking growth and improvements in your performance. If your manager does give you advice, the next time you do a similar project, you can go back to them to talk about how you implemented that to keep the conversation going and improve employer-employee relations.
Strategise your social media pages
Other than Linkedin, Instagram is perhaps the second biggest platform to showcase your talent, skills and experience, both personal and professional. Navneet Singh, founder and CEO of an HR consultancy, says that we can harness the power of social media to advocate for ourselves.
Sometimes our posting can be hit-and-miss, some things work, others fall flat. He advises strategising in a way that builds your personal brand without it seeming obnoxious. “Follow the ‘5-3-2’ rule for social media sharing. Pick 9 pieces of content: 5 should be from others, 3 from you and 2 should be personal updates,” says Singh in an interview with Times of India.
You don’t have to be an influencer with a million followers, but be a bit smart about the kind of content you post and the people you engage with. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in your field and talk to them about their work. Social media can be a great professional networking tool, and you never know where a conversation may lead,” says Dua. Talk to people one step above you on the corporate ladder. Talk to them about their professional journeys. Ask them questions related to things that they have posted themselves. Creating such professional friendships may sound self-serving (they are, in a way) but can also function as support systems and mentorship.
Indulge in self-validating behaviour
Self-promotion will feel a whole lot easier the more you build your confidence. Giving yourself validation over your wins, small or big, gives you the boost you need. It doesn’t even have to be a ‘win’, necessarily. Kapur says that whenever you take on a monumental job, whether it’s a big success or not, appreciate the effort that went into it.
To be able to talk yourself up, you need to have some notion of what your achievements are. Take note of the things you do and want to achieve at work. Quite literally, note it down and memorise it. So when someone asks you, you have a few moments handy in your memory to talk about what you’ve managed to achieve for yourself and the company.
You can rid yourself of some of the discomforts by rehearsing how to toot your own horn. Kapur says you can make use of your work lunch break. If you’re working from home, organise a weekly video get together with colleagues to catch up instead. During this time, talk about your work; everyone together can share weekly progress, achievements and goals. This can let you rehearse your main talking points when you finally sit down with the higher-ups and let others in the team also know what you have going on.
Make your intentions known
Studies suggest that when it comes to hiring for managerial positions, men are judged by their potential and what they could bring to the company, whereas women are more likely to be evaluated on their past job performances.
When it comes to your potential and what you want to do, sometimes you may need to really spell it out. Hoping you’ll get noticed, promoted or patted on the back solely based on job performance is wishful thinking after a point. You need to make your intentions known. That could mean having a sit-down with the boss on talking about your future at the company and what you want to achieve.
Dua suggests having a meeting with the person in the company whose job you admire (or would like to do) and talking to them about what it took to get them there. “Ask them about the skills needed, what you can brush up. It’s a subtle way of making it known that this is a position that you’re looking to work towards. So when times come for promotion, or for some reason that person leaves the company, not only will your name already be on people’s minds but you’d also be more prepared to take on the role having brushed up on the discussed skills.”
Talk more about the impact of what you do
No boss is going to give you a high five or a pat on the back every time you tackle an assignment successfully. At the end of the, whether it’s for managers or job interviewers, it’s about numbers and what you bring in for the company. Emilie Aries, the author of Bossed Up: A Grown Woman’s Guide to Getting Your Sh*t Together, says what’s more effective is talking about the impact you had instead of what you did, and Dua backs this up.
It’s about reframing your humblebrag a tiny bit. He gives an example saying, “Change the way you share your achievements. Don’t say ‘I scripted and directed videos for my company’ because so what? A lot of other candidates may have done the same. To have an impact, look at the numbers. It’s more effective to elaborate. ‘I wrote and directed videos for X, Y and Z brands and they each had 20,000 to 30,000 views and likes.’” You’re not only sharing what you can do, in terms of your skills but what you could pull off for the company using those talents.
Check your vocabulary, don’t minimise what you do
Turn your ‘we’ statements into ‘I’. Women have a tendency to fall back on self-defeating and minimising language. To an extent, it’s necessary and the right thing to do. If it’s a group effort, everyone should be recognised. No one likes it when one person hogs the limelight. But you can still appreciate the work done by the team, and make yourself stand out.
Author and CEO of Disruption Advisor, Whitney Johnson writes that we can “append a list of individual contributions to the royal ‘we’ — she did x, he did y, and I did z. Society is comfortable with women who acknowledge others. Hence recognising yourself whilst praising others is much more palatable.”
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Strategic bragging is all about finding a balance. Taking those small steps that hit the sweet spot of self-promotion to help you shine without causing any collateral damage. If you’re highlighting your accomplishments while bringing down your coworkers, then you’re more likely to be perceived as a sour puss than a model employee. Tooting your own trumpet while slamming on others is not a good look. When things get tough and you find yourself on the burning edge of deadlines, you’re going to need people on your team for a successful slam dunk.