July 21, 2015

I Don't Want to Brag, but You Should

Bruce Murray

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When I meet new people, I want their respect but it takes time to earn this "feeling of deep admiration… (of my) abilities, qualities, or achievements." In some situations, such as a job interview or joining a new team, we try to manage the impression we make on people because important decisions about our future will not wait until we have time to earn that respect. The greater the time pressure, the more aggressively we'll manage our behavior.

Bragging will show off our abilities, qualities and achievements but runs the risk of making us appear as egotistical jerks. Flattery, and even complaining, can ingratiate ourselves with others and foster a spirit of commonality. But once either of these are identified, the impression we've left is that we are insincere and untrustworthy.

It feels awkward writing about these tools to manage others' impressions of us. Each one is a blatant attempt to manipulate – behaviors I detest, but, consciously or not, I employ them often to some degree. Since my many books and articles are written in a distinctly academic manner, I beg your pardon while I lighten the mood from here on.

Read that last paragraph and consider what kind of impression of me it gave.  I trumpet my literary prowess as I confess to using "behaviors I detest." I try to couch the brag in humility and complaint. A forthcoming book would call that sentence a "humblebrag." The authors call this an "increasingly ubiquitous form of self-promotion," particularly in social media.

Humblebrag’s research determined that humblebraggers are "less liked," "less attractive," and "more insincere" than either braggers or complainers. Follow the authors' advice: "Faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former – and at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere."

But nice people don’t brag, complain or flatter, right? Business scholar Adam Grant says, "What I’ve become convinced of is that nice guys and gals really do finish last." I read this in Jerry Useem's "Why It Pays to Be a Jerk." [Spoiler alert… Useem concludes that "being a jerk will fail most people most of the time."] But, importantly, we now have boundaries. Be un-nice enough to accomplish your goals, but stop short of coming off as a pure jerk.

Let's consider a few good practices. Make sure your bragging, complaining and flattery are relevant to your needs. Is it useful to brag about your accounting skills when joining a team that will brainstorm mobile apps?

Avoid generalities. Flattery such as, "This looks like a great place. I’d love working here" is ineffective. Let them share in the satisfaction by telling them why you are flattering: "I share your company's values in protecting the environment. I initiated a program that reduced our company's waste by 11 percent in the first year."

In lieu of blowing your own trumpet, cite another's assessment of you, but, since your listeners probably don't know your source, have contact info handy as a reference.

While recognizing that being a jerk usually fails miserably, Useem finds three situations in which – if it's important enough to you –being a jerk can succeed:

  1. One-time encounters where reputational blowback has minimal effect.

  2. That evanescent moment after a group has formed but its hierarchy has not.

  3. When the group's survival is in question, speed is essential, and a paralyzing existential doubt is in the air.

At least with the last two, I’d say the jerkiness could be viewed as demonstrating leadership in a critical moment.

Grant categorizes people as givers or takers. He finds that most are givers to friends and family, but givers at work end up as losers. So to avoid being viewed as a self-absorbed, power-seeking taker, he recommends becoming a "disagreeable giver." That is, be willing to use thorny behavior to further other people's well-being and success. Become comfortable with discomfort and take the initiative.

Just stop short of being a true jerk and, oh yeah, avoid those ineffective humblebrags.

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3 comments on “I Don't Want to Brag, but You Should”

  1. It says here "I’d say the jerkiness could be viewed as demonstrating leadership in a critical moment."
    I'm not sure that I'll ever see a jerk as a leader or even look up to them even a little bit. Jerks tend to act out of ego and arrogance and I've yet to see that work out in a team.

    1. I agree with your reaction to jerks. The only time I ever appreciated one was on the day after, when I was glad he took my car keys and prevented me from driving home drunk. If he'd been "nice" it might have ended up in disaster.

  2. Hi Rebel. Thanks for that feedback.

    As Bruce comments "Spoiler alert… Useem concludes that "being a jerk will fail most people most of the time." But, importantly, we now have boundaries. Be un-nice enough to accomplish your goals, but stop short of coming off as a pure jerk."

    I think the point being made here is that the goals need to remain focused, while being just nice enough to not upset anyone. I have worked with many self-serving people and, although they succeed, I find it difficult to substantiate their behaviour sometimes. Fear mongering just to get forward in a career is never a good idea - it will catch up with you at some point.

    Bill
    Mind Tools Team

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