Everyone knows that success at work depends on being—and being seen as—both competent and likable. You need people to notice your growth and accomplishments while also enjoying your company. But if you draw attention to the value you’ve created, to ensure that managers and peers recognize it, you risk coming across as a shameless self-promoter. No one likes a braggart. In this article the author explains how to highlight your accomplishments at work without having it backfire. Drawing from a fascinating strain of laboratory research, she advises against several popular tactics such as “humblebragging” and “boomerasking” (asking a question in the hope it will be reciprocated so that you can bring up your own accomplishments). Instead, she advises, recognize situations where self-promotion is socially acceptable (such as job interviews) and consider using a mentor or other agent to boast on your behalf.
We know that success at work depends on being—and being seen as—both competent and likable. You need people to notice your growth and accomplishments while also enjoying your company. But this puts you in a predicament. If you draw attention to the value you’ve created—to ensure that managers and peers recognize it—you risk coming across as a shameless self-promoter. Not to mention the “icky” feeling that many of us get when we self-promote (narcissists excepted).
No one likes a braggart—maybe because bragging makes others feel envy, annoyance, or even anger. Numerous studies have shown that a person who brags is seen as (and is often also being) egotistical, insecure, and inconsiderate. At the same time, research indicates, those who talk themselves up are not perceived as any more competent than their humbler counterparts. Self-promotion has actually been associated with worse performance reviews—particularly for women, who are penalized more heavily when they boast. And although certain cultures, including the United States, are more tolerant of self-promotion than others, the potential downsides to bragging seem to be universal.
Trying to hide the fact that you’re boasting doesn’t help. Consider the “humblebrag”—that is, a boast masked by a complaint (“I’m so tired of being the only person the boss trusts”) or by humility (“I can’t believe I got this award!”). In research led by Ovul Sezer of the University of North Carolina, participants rated people who made comments on social media such as “Huh. I seem to have written one of Amazon.com’s top 10 books of the year (so far). Unexpected” as not only less likable but also less competent than people who were more straightforward (“I have written one of Amazon.com’s top 10 books of the year”).
So how can you realize the benefits of self-promotion without the backlash? Opportunities to brag without penalty at work are few and far between, so I generally advise people to focus on earning recognition through consistent performance. As my father always told my brothers and me when we were growing up, “The cream will rise to the top.”
Humility is admirable. But if someone requests information or an answer that requires you to reveal positives about yourself, you should oblige.
However, cream sometimes needs a little help to rise. And although bragging is by and large socially inappropriate, there are exceptions. My research and that of others points to a few ways to draw attention to your accomplishments without penalty, whether your goal is instrumental (say, to ensure that your contributions aren’t overlooked come bonus time) or emotional (perhaps to get praise and feel valued).
Share when asked.
Humility is admirable. But if someone requests information or an answer that requires you to reveal positives about yourself, you should oblige. Research indicates that when someone details an accomplishment in response to a direct question, others don’t judge that person as any less agreeable. In fact, in research I conducted with Kate Barasz of ESADE and Michael Norton of HBS, we found that if you’re given an opportunity to brag—for example, by being asked, “What are your greatest strengths?” or “How did you finish that so quickly?”—forgoing it can raise suspicion. We found that not answering or being coy about such questions may cause people to think you’re neither trustworthy nor likable.
You might be tempted to induce others to give you such openings for self-promotion—what some call “boomerasking.” But that’s a risky strategy if a conversation partner senses that he or she is being gamed. New research led by Ryan Hauser of Harvard Business School indicates that posing a question not because you want an answer but because you want someone to ask the same of you makes a worse impression than outright bragging. Let questions arise organically, and when you see opportunities to highlight your successes, make the most of them.
Share when others are sharing.
Have you noticed that when someone shares something personal with you, whether it be a point of pride or a shortcoming, you are often triggered to reciprocate? Indeed, a series of studies some colleagues and I conducted found that when people were told that others had revealed personal information, it prompted them to reciprocate in kind.
Moreover, research led by Youngme Moon of HBS indicates that it held true even when people interacted with a computer that displayed “self-promotional” messages, such as that it “rarely gets used to its full potential” or “has a huge hard drive.” The penalty for bragging seems to dissipate when others in the room are engaging in self-promotion.
Similarly, in contexts where people typically share their successes, such as job interviews, it can be beneficial to brag. In one study, researchers followed 106 job seekers, taping their interviews and measuring the extent to which they engaged in self-promotion. Those who took time to outline their strengths, experience, and achievements were more likely to be rated by their interviewers as suitable for the job and of greater interest to the organization than those who didn’t brag as much. (That said, don’t go so far that you forget to engage in other attractive behaviors, such as asking questions—a risk highlighted in research by Dan Cable of London Business School and Virginia Kay of the University of North Carolina.)
You can see this effect play out on LinkedIn, where self-promotion is rampant, or in offices where doctors, lawyers, and other professionals commonly display their degrees and credentials to show patients or clients that they are in qualified hands. In short, research indicates that in situations where others share too, people can successfully convey their accomplishments without coming across as unlikable, egotistical, or inconsiderate.
Find a promoter.
Athletes, musicians, and actors hire publicists and agents for good reason. Intermediaries are seen as less self-serving and thus provide an aura of objectivity. The same can be true in business settings. In a series of studies led by Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, participants tasked with setting a salary for a new employee were given one of two job interview transcripts. In the first, the candidate volunteered statements such as “Anyone who has worked with me would say that I am a natural leader.” In the second, a recruiter did the promoting: “Anyone who has worked with her would say that she is a natural leader.” The candidate who bragged through an intermediary was better liked, seen as more competent, and awarded higher pay than the self-promotional one. Other research indicates that secondhand bragging is also less likely to elicit negative emotions such as envy and annoyance. The effect is so powerful that even blatant conflicts of interest—for example, if an executive search firm is being paid a percentage of a new hire’s salary—don’t seem to undermine intermediaries’ credibility.
Of course, no one brings an agent to a performance review, and it’s rare to have a cheerleading recruiter attend your job interviews. But you can find intermediaries, including peers, bosses, mentors, and sponsors, who will be happy to speak up on your behalf—as long as you are respectful in your solicitation. This is easier than you might think. Research led by Cornell University’s Vanessa Bohns indicates that we tend to underestimate others’ willingness to help by about 50%. Benefits also accrue to the helper. Research on “positive gossip” indicates that people are more highly regarded when they brag about others. That means, of course, that you, too, should praise the accomplishments of others; it’s kind, good for morale, and may prompt reciprocation.
One last note: If someone unexpectedly compliments you publicly, resist the instinct to humbly downplay it; a smile or a simple “Thank you” will suffice.
Strike a balance.
Even when you see a clear opening to highlight your accomplishments, you should be measured about it. Research indicates that when people present a balanced picture of themselves, rather than discussing only successes, they come across as more credible and affable. Those with high status, in particular, should acknowledge failures and foibles as well as achievements, not only because such candor is laudable, but also because it makes them less likely to come across as brash, unlikable, and worthy of envy. This even holds for brands. Research suggests that when marketers point out a minor drawback in an otherwise positive product description (for instance, noting that it “comes in only two colors”), consumer purchase interest actually increases.
This strategy works because humans are much more adept at making relative judgments than absolute ones: When negative information is sprinkled into a largely positive narrative, we compare the two, which allows accomplishments to stand out and be more readily accepted. For example, participants in a research study led by Alison Wood Brooks of HBS were highly envious of successful (fictional) entrepreneurs except for the one who, after pitching to a group of potential investors, said, “I wasn’t always so successful. I had a lot of trouble getting to where I am now….When I started my company…I failed to demonstrate why potential clients should believe in me and our mission. Many…turned me down.” Taking this research to heart, one colleague went so far as to post a “CV of failures” alongside his accomplishments on his university biography page.
My colleagues and I have recently found that managers, in particular, benefit from revealing small weaknesses, because it causes their employees to view them as more authentic, which leads to greater trust and motivation. However, the positive effect accrued only when the weakness was relatively mild (“I am nervous about public speaking”) rather than serious (“I’m so nervous about public speaking that I sometimes start to panic”).
Humorous self-deprecation is another way to offset bragging—but again, use it with caution. Recent research suggests that observers take self-deprecating jokes (for example, “Every project I’ve done has been on time and under budget—if you double the estimates!”) at face value. Self-deprecation and bragging seem to be two sides of the same coin. A little helps; too much can hurt.
Celebrate the right way.
We all want our achievements to be recognized and applauded. It’s a boost to morale and well-being. And there are ways to celebrate without coming across as boastful. One is to find a circle of close friends at work and outside it who will cheer your victories as if they were their own. Research shows that telling confidants about your successes can improve those relationships. The reverse is also true: According to Emma Levine of the University of Chicago and colleagues, withholding good news—say, qualifying for the Boston Marathon—from close others harms trust and intimacy: People feel left out.
Solo celebrations work too. Treat yourself to a nice meal, a new dress, or just a relaxing night in with your favorite TV show. In fact, I recommend making time to regularly reflect on your successes. Research suggests that when we accomplish something big—say, landing that promotion—our happiness levels initially increase but soon return to their baseline. Although one shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels, it can be beneficial to get more mileage out of achievements by reminiscing about them. In this spirit, I do two things: First, I keep a “warm, fuzzy” email folder; whenever someone sends me a note of praise, I save it to revisit as a pick-me-up at some future date. Second, every New Year’s Eve my husband and I each write down our 10 best (and 10 worst) moments from the year and share them with each other. (I recommend that you do the bad ones first so as to get more joy from the contrast.)
Some of you may struggle to tout your own accomplishments. For others, bragging may come naturally. In either case, the research-backed tactics I’ve described should help you become more effective at promoting yourself at work while proving to be both likable and competent. Knowing how and when to boast—and when to refrain—is one important way to advance your career.
One last and crucial point: If you find yourself constantly fighting the urge to brag, ask yourself why you feel the need. Everybody loves praise, but are you overly dependent on it? Not intrinsically motivated enough? Feeling undervalued in your profession? If so, why? The answers to those questions may prompt deeper self-reflection, which could bring you far more personal benefit than self-promotion ever will.
Leslie K. John is a Marvin Bower Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.
A version of this article appeared in the May-June 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review.