The Key to Successful Self-Promotion: A Busy Boss

Every company seems to have at least one: the person anointed, the chosen one, the one expected to rise. Or the person who has already soared up the ranks, yet no one really knows how. Or more perplexing, why.

Why — oh, why — did Colleague X get to the top, seemingly without talent, aptitude, work ethic or any personal trait approaching likability?

Alison Fragale was just out of college, working at a prestigious management consulting firm, when she observed her own Colleague X, an objectionable, work-averse peer whose star was nonetheless clearly and surely shooting upward.

“This guy was one of the it people,” Fragale recalled in an interview. “But I worked with him and he didn’t seem to be it at all. I confided this to another peer, and he said: ‘I’m right there with you. But I agree, he seems to have a really good reputation.’”

Soon Fragale figured out why. Colleague X, as it turned out, was an adept self-promoter, though not a garden variety braggart. He was a particularly masterful and stealthy self-promoter who knew how to sell his own praises to the right people in the right way.

Years later, with a Stanford Ph.D. in hand, Fragale, now an associate professor teaching organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, remembered her experience and asked again: Why did Colleague X’s self-promotion work?

This time she sought an answer through research.

No one likes a braggart

Sociologists, psychologists and behavioral researchers who study self-promotion have come up with mixed results. Sometimes, research shows, self-promoters succeed in getting ahead at work, securing hefty raises and promotions. But sometimes their self-flattering ways backfire.

“People who brag about what they do, no one really likes them,” said Leonard Kim, managing partner with Influence Tree, a Los Angeles firm that helps clients grow personal brands, largely by promoting attributes through personal stories.

Even though it can be effective, colleagues and friends dislike self-promotion because it often comes off as haughty, arrogant and too blatantly self-interested. But when it works, it’s largely because the self-promoter’s audience — peers or bosses —  see the person’s cold, hard business abilities as well as their more likable, human attributes.

Psychologists, using a theory dubbed the “stereotype content model,” believe that an audience perceives people along two dimensions, with competence as one axis and warmth as another. Self-promotion tends to boost peoples’ perceptions of “competence,” but that same self-promotion puts a dent in their perception of “warmth.”

“When we self-promote, it has the benefit of showing ourselves as confident, but then people don’t like you as much,” Fragale said. “People do it to get ahead, but part of getting ahead is people liking you. That’s the bind of self-promotion.”

But when a person self-promotes to their peers, and the information somehow reaches the ears of other peers — or, even better, bosses — the self-promotion starts to take root in a more effective way. 

“If it’s not you saying something, then it’s even better for you,” Fragale said. “You get all the benefits of self-promotion without violating norms of social modesty.” In other words, you don’t take a hit on the “warmth” side of the scale.

That, Fragale remembered, was the case with her Colleague X.

“Other people weren’t promoting him. He was talking about how awesome he is,” she said. “Other people repeated that and then that became a valid source of information.”

A lot of researchers have looked at the outcomes of self-promotion, but Fragale and her colleague Adam Grant, now a professor at Wharton, wanted to know why and how it works — not by looking at the promoter, but the audience. She remembered, once again, Colleague X, who self-promoted not just to peers, but directly to higher-ups.

That approach, Fragale discovered, was particularly fruitful.

Fragale and Grant ran experiments to test their thinking. They showed a job candidate’s cover letter and three letters of recommendation to participants in the experiment and asked them to review the candidate for a position. The information in the letters was identical, except that in some cases positive information was in the candidate’s cover letter and in others, it was in a reference letter.

They then added in a layer of “busyness” — a task that would distract or delay a participant’s attention as they reviewed the applications.

Busy bosses

Fragale and Grant found that when the participants were distracted and busy, they viewed a candidate as superior — despite their self-promoting cover letter —  largely because they were so cognitively overloaded they forgot the source of the information.

“They’re less able to identify where the information came from. Did it come from the cover letter or the reference letter?” Fragale explained. “We found out that people are worse at attaching information to a source when they’re busy.”

And most bosses are really busy.

In essence, Fragale’s research confirmed the efficacy of Colleague X’s strategy: Brag to your busy boss and he or she won’t hold it against you because he or she will probably forget it was you who bragged in the first place. Ultimately, it has the same effect as third-party validation — as if you’d never boasted about yourself at all.

“If you tell the senior people — and they’re the busy people — and they don’t remember where they heard, it, they’re the most likely to misremember it and repeat it,” Fragale said, “which gives it that much more power.”

Kim, of Influence Tree, says the key to self-promotion in a social media-saturated environment isn’t actually to boast about yourself, but point out other people’s accolades. That becomes a lot easier with a “like” or a simple forward.

“Social media has made shameless self-promotion a cultural norm,” said Steve Tobak, a management consultant and author of “Real Leaders Don’t Follow.” “The way to stand above the crowd and build credibility instead of coming across like a complete BS artist is to be truthful.”

But social media can also respond like a busy, overloaded boss.

“It’s a method of communication that can detach information from its source,” Fragale said. “It can make it more effective and it can happen more quickly.”

Despite the method, though, self-promotion is critically important to advancing.

“To think that we can sit in our office with our doors closed and do good work and someone will throw us a parade is false,” Fragale said. “You have to be willing to be the source of your own promotion. It’s not cheating.”

Steering clear of Colleague X might help, too.

Citation for this content: MBA@UNC, UNC Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA program

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