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How to Self-Promote at Work Without Feeling Icky

Self-promotion can feel awkward and sleazy, but it doesn't have to! Here are five ways to toot your own horn without raising your colleagues' eyebrows.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #579
women promoting themselves at work

Does the idea of having to self-promote leave you feeling like you need a shower? Sometimes, it seems showy and braggy and icky. The thought of having to do it may make your skin crawl. And yet, self-promotion is essential.

The key to promoting yourself is striking the balance between humility and hubris. You need to find ways to demonstrate confidence—in the service of creating opportunities—without seeming self-congratulatory or off-putting.

Doing great work isn’t enough

Doing great work—delivering important projects, delighting customers and clients, contributing innovative ideas—is crucial if we aspire to new challenges and opportunities at work. But these successes only serve us if the leaders and decision-makers around us have a clear understanding of what we’ve achieved and how we’ve impacted the business.

If you’re looking to get ahead at work, doing great work is only half the battle. The other half is shining the light on your achievements. And this, we accomplish through self-promotion.

Getting self-promotion wrong can have real consequences. Poorly orchestrated self-promotion can hinder your ability to grow. It limits people’s willingness to follow your leadership, to choose to collaborate with you, and to support your candidacy for roles you aspire to.

If you’re looking to get ahead at work, doing great work is only half the battle. The other half is shining the light on your achievements.

There are many strategies you can use to effectively and stealthily promote yourself—your achievements, your knowledge, your capabilities—without being off-putting. Here are my five favorite ways to self-promote without making my colleagues and superiors roll their eyes.

1. Be focused and intentional about self-promotion

Think of self-promotion as a means to an end, not a general way of being. Instead of tooting your horn at every single success (icky), identify specific achievements or successes that support a goal you’re striving to achieve.

If you’re hoping for an opportunity to take the lead on an upcoming client pitch, then choose a piece of feedback you’ve received from a client that highlights your ability to listen and respond to their needs. Make sure your boss, or the key decision-maker, sees that particular feedback.

But stay on-script! Stay focused on promoting your client attentiveness and don’t go overboard touting your graphic design or writing skills. Peers and colleagues will happily celebrate along with you in occasional moments of thoughtful self-promotion.

2. Hold others up next to you

Looking good isn't a zero-sum game—there can be lots of winners at once. Often, when you’ve achieved something worth celebrating or promoting, you’ve had some help along the way.

Tell your success stories in a way that highlights the contributions and wins of your collaborators as well as your own. This positions you not as a self-promoter, but as a promoter of others—a highly valued leadership skill.

Holding up others positions you not as a self-promoter, but as a promoter of others—a highly valued leadership skill.

As you boost others, you win your own recognition points along the way. So if you’ve successfully pitched a client and landed their business, try saying something like “Without the incredible research and preparation Sally did, we never would have landed this client.” This approach allows you to celebrate Sally while discretely delivering the message that earning this piece of business was actually your win.

3. Ask amazing questions that demonstrate your expertise

Asking surface-level questions— “What is the Internet of Things?” or “How will AI shift our industry in the next 10 years?”—signals only that you’ve learned a few buzzwords. It's a game anyone can play.

Following up with probing questions demonstrates your understanding of and your desire to learn more about the subject and can promote you as a blossoming expert.

But when you go head-to-head with someone deeply in the know on these topics, you’ll get responses that warrant further probing. I know virtually nothing about IoT or AI, so my conversation with an expert would end quickly. But if you’re someone with interest in and knowledge of one of these topics, following up with probing questions that demonstrate your understanding of and your desire to learn more about the subject at hand can promote you as a blossoming expert.

Asking smart questions is hard work. It demonstrates your ability to follow the conversation and allows you to help someone else shine along the way. So use the opportunity to not only give a seasoned expert the floor but also to demonstrate your own chops.

4. Ask for feedback

You’ve accomplished something you’re proud of, and you want to be sure that your boss, client, or mentor knows what you achieved and how you achieved it. Asking for feedback can be a powerful way of creating the opportunity to talk in detail about the great work you did.

When you ask for feedback, it's important to be open to receiving both the positive and the critical.

Let the person you want to influence know that you’re really excited about the outcome you’ve achieved. Tell them you’d like to dissect the process to learn from what went well but also to identify opportunities to make things go even more smoothly next time.

The key here is to avoid being disingenuous. When you ask for feedback, it's important to be open to receiving both the positive and the critical. Being receptive gives you the chance to celebrate, self-promote, and learn with humility all in the course of a single conversation.

5. Offer your services to others

A great way to demonstrate your knowledge, skill, or capability is by making yourself of service to others. Teaching, training, mentoring, coaching—these are all wonderful means of demonstrating your own talents while positioning you not as a bragger but as an asset.

By offering to provide value to those around you, you’re creating opportunities to show off what you can do without having to talk explicitly about how amazing you are.

Know a little something about coding? Rather than walking the halls wearing a T-shirt that says so, offer to teach a workshop or to host a lunch-and-learn for colleagues who are interested in learning the basics. Proud of your presentation design skills? Offer to create some templates and style guides the team can use when preparing presentations. By offering to provide value to those around you, you’re creating opportunities to show off what you can do without having to talk explicitly about how amazing you are.

So, there you have my five favorite techniques for effectively self-promoting in a way that serves your goals without putting off those around you.

Self-promotion can be easy, not sleazy

If this list has inspired you to action—and I hope it has—then godspeed and go forth!

But if you’re still struggling to get over the hump of self-promotion ickiness, try keeping this in mind: Your company pays you to deliver value. If you’re unwilling to promote your achievements and capabilities, then your company will never know how to extract the greatest value from what you bring to the table.

Think about self-promotion not as a means of touting your goods, but as a means of letting your company know just what you’re capable of and how you can serve the greater good.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.