A humblebrag isn’t the answer

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Development

Many individuals, especially women, struggle with achieving equilibrium between confidence and humility—another one of those life, love and leadership challenges of getting it just right by avoiding too much or too little of the extremes.

Self-promotion advice I recently read in a leadership enews post zoomed right past confidence and into hubris. It’s a busy, noisy world where being heard or being top of mind are precious commodities. Yet creating a five-part strategic plan to showcase winning an award feels like over-the-top, calculated conceit. Personal branding can go too far and result in being labeled arrogant and egotistic, which isn’t how leaders want to be known.

But the other extreme is equally as bad. A self-effacing “Oh, it was nothing” or “I was just lucky” can backfire, too. Individuals might believe your denials and fail to give you credit when credit is due. A friend told me about having been to an awards dinner where nearly all the award recipients either downplayed their accomplishments or apologized for them. He slyly—and not totally in jest—remarked that he was surprised they were nominated since they believed they’d done so little to be noteworthy.

The rise of the humblebrag—boasting disguised as modesty—isn’t a solution either. Social media brims with examples of manufactured demureness:  “Geniuses at Amazon just recommended my own book to me.” “Just spilled wine on my new book contract. #bumblingthroughlife.” Tempering good news with some personal fault isn’t the confidence/humility equilibrium answer.

So where is the sweet spot in sharing just the right amount of personal accomplishments without stepping over into hauteur land?

  • Recognizing when a gracious “thank you” is enough. Character-based leaders are tuned into their environment and can assess when less said is really more.
  • Giving ourselves permission to feel good about—and share—our successes. Gracefully and tactfully publicizing our achievements helps us when recognition or promotion time rolls around. Plus it makes us feel good about ourselves.
  • Striving for balance in using “I” and “we” statements. Effective leaders want to be known as generous team players, not self-serving egomaniacs.
  • Taming the inner critic or fear that stops us from talking positively about ourselves. Focus more on success and less on the possibility of failure. “Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good,” writes psychologist Martin Seligman.
  • Resisting the siren song extolling the virtues of blatant self-promotion, what writer David Zweig calls the “culture of profile” where the “metric of value is just attention.” The pull of the whisper is more alluring than a blaring band that goes on and on.

What say you?

Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything. ~Rainer Maria Rilke


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About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
Jane is a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. She loves chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

JoAnne Simson  |  13 Aug 2014  |  Reply

This is a good one! Oh so true, and also so difficult, especially for women, most of whom tend to be self-effacing. I certainly haven’t gotten to that “sweet spot” yet! Thanks.

Jane Perdue  |  13 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Jo Anne — from what I’ve observed, you’re doing pretty darn well with that sweet spot! Thanks for sharing!

Jeff King  |  13 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Good content, and I really like the “humblebrag” tag line. But why is a sincere “thank you” so difficult to muster? Most times, the person complimenting or praising you really only wants some sign of appreciation for the kind words or recognition. Of course, some added response that shows that you will be extra motivated by the praise usually is a good idea as well.

Jane Perdue  |  14 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Jeff — thanks for your kind words. You are so right that saying “thank you” can be really tough…we sometimes forget that a compliment or praise is a gift! Should be focusing on the other person rather than ourselves.

Helen Kerstiens-Marvin  |  13 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Great article! It identifies what I think of as the illusive fine line. I wonder how many of us have just said “thank you” and tried to be self-effacing by including others that have helped in small ways with a success that we are primarily responsible for, then kicked ourselves for not owning it more when others are credited with the work. Sure, it’s ego, but it also affects perception and promotional opportunities. In the workplace, not everyone “plays fair” and that sweet spot can be difficult to find, but your article has made me resolve to try.

Jane Perdue  |  14 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Helen — thanks much for your kind words and great observations. The situation you describe comes up a lot in my workshops with women. They want to be modest and want to share with others but then find themselves being left out of the equation. To me, it all comes back to managing both confidence and humility at the same time!

David M. Dye  |  13 Aug 2014  |  Reply

Great post, Jane!

The personal branding movement so often crosses over into humblebrag land…

Appreciate the course corrections :)


Jane Perdue  |  14 Aug 2014  |  Reply

David – appreciate your kindness! Sometimes I wonder if the personal branding movement has done more harm than good. Given that social media takes out the one-on-one interaction, we miss the face-to-face reactions that signal we’ve gone astray. Smiles!

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