The subtle art of self-promotion

Why bragging at work is a key to success

Subtle art of self-promotion

Usain Bolt probably needs little help with talking up his talents -- but you might. Here, Bolt poses on the podium after winning the men's 4X100 relay final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 11, 2012. (JOHANNES EISELEJOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages / September 14, 2012)

I'm excited for my bosses to read this so they can see what an awesome job I'm doing at column writing and at being handsome and great.

You see, the subject this week is bragging — at which I'm very good — and how it has become a sine qua non for workplace success. (My use of fancy Latin words such as "sine qua non" is an indication that I'm VERY smart too!)

First off, there are two types of office bragging. One is over-the-top and annoying (see the first two paragraphs). The other is an effective means of highlighting your work and getting the attention of the people who sign your paychecks.

But while every office has its resident braggart, few people are engaging in the kind of subtle self-promotion that is becoming critical to job security and advancement.

"Bragging is something that everyone needs to do," said Peggy Klaus, a business coach and author of "BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It." "We go into a job interview and show our best selves and talk about ourselves in interesting and positive ways. Then we get the job and think, 'Oh, man, we're in.' And that's where the good bragging stops. And it's absolutely nuts."

In the current job market, the folly of being humble is particularly obvious. Companies that are downsizing are less likely to shake loose of people they know are succeeding and working hard.

Consider a recent study out of Northwestern University that found women's tendency to downplay their successes at work might be holding them back. The study, set up so gender discrimination wouldn't be a factor, showed that men who boasted more about their accomplishments were selected as group leaders more often than women.

"Men tend to overstate how well they do relative to women," said Paola Sapienza, co-author of the study and a professor of finance at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "And the people who are making the decisions after hearing everyone speak tended to take most people's statements at face value. You'd think that people would discount what men say somewhat and inflate what women say about themselves. But in reality, they didn't do that."

While she said she hesitates to encourage people to "bolster their attributes," Sapienza said: "It would help women to be more self-promoting."

So how does anyone, male or female, brag in a way that won't lead to the dreaded tag of "boot-licker" or "toady"?

It requires subtlety.

Klaus suggests finding ways to weave positive things you've accomplished into a story, one that reveals a positive detail or two about yourself. In an example from her book, Klaus describes a woman named Lucille who started eating lunch around co-workers in the break room instead of at her desk.

During one conversation, Lucille casually brought up that she has a degree in women's studies. The co-worker wound up telling the company's human resources director about Lucille's degree, and Lucille was put in charge of the company's new diversity effort.

"You don't need to roll out a laundry list of your successes," Klaus said. "You do it intermittently. Maybe send the boss a quick note that says, 'Hey, great news, thought you'd want to know that I just got Mr. Smith on the phone after six months of pursuing him and his secretary.' Just little things like that."

She said executives routinely tell her they want to hear good news from their workers: "They say, 'Why does everybody come to me only with bad news? We need to be reminded of the successes so we can share them.' But if you don't tell them, they won't know about it."

Dorothy Tannahill Moran, a career development expert and founder of the Oregon-based company Next Chapter New Life, agreed that we live in a working world where it's key to occasionally shine a light on yourself. She said short and sweet statements are best, ideally ones aimed at keeping your boss or manager abreast of work progress.

She also said to avoid overusing "I" in conversations, as that's an obvious sign of boasting. Try to keep things team-oriented, using "we" and sharing credit when things go well.

A final tip from Klaus hits on a situation most people have experienced. Say you're getting into the elevator and the boss — with whom you rarely get face-time — walks in at the last second. You've got a perfect opportunity to say something smart, but instead you say, "Hey, sure has been hot lately, right?" Or some such.

Klaus suggests always having something ready to say so you don't miss an opportunity for on-the-spot stealth-bragging: "You could say, 'Things are great. Just finished working on that report. Found a place where we can save some money, and I'm going to have it on your desk in 30 minutes.' Just something simple like that. You've got to always be prepared."

That's why I spend a little time each night going over how fantastic I am. And updating my "Awesome Things Rex Has Done" blog. You know me, Mr. Subtlety.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

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