There’s a difference between bragging and self-advocacy. Here’s why you need to know how to do the latter, and some tips for getting started.
By Dana Rubin
When I talk to my female clients about the skills of thought leadership, there’s one question I hear over and over: “I don’t like to brag! How can I put my best foot forward without sounding full of myself?”
At first the question puzzled me, because the skill I recommend is self-advocacy — not bragging. But my female clients often don’t get the distinction. It’s a gap in understanding that reverberates throughout their professional lives.
In today’s workplace, being competent isn’t nearly enough. You can’t keep your head down and do the work and hope people will notice.
Self-advocacy is necessary to making your accomplishments known — to your peers, to the higher-ups in your organization, your customers, and to your wider professional community — for example, the organizers of conferences you may want to speak at, or editors of publications you may want to publish in.
But many women find they don’t want to stand out because it makes them uncomfortable. They even hesitate to use the “I” word, preferring to share credit with their colleagues: “It was a team effort,” they like to say. Men, on the other hand, tend to do the opposite — they will readily say, “Pick me — I’m the best!”
Traditional gender roles play a large part in these tendencies. Historically men have been expected to be assertive, dominant and bold, while women were expected to be selfless, caring and unassertive. Now those roles are breaking down. Women want to get ahead, and to do that they must self-advocate.
If you don’t know your value or can’t articulate it, your superiors won’t know what you’ve accomplished. If you’re not regularly claiming credit for your impact on the organization, you’ll be overlooked.
Because I’m a big fan of language, I went to the dictionary to find out what exactly is the difference between bragging and self-advocacy. According to Merriam-Webster, bragging means, “to talk about yourself, your achievements, your family, etc., in a way that shows too much pride.” Advocacy, on the other hand, is “the act of supporting a cause or proposal.” Those are two very different actions.
Historically women have been very comfortable supporting causes. So why aren’t they passionate about advocating for their own careers?
Here’s the insight I now share with my clients: bragging about yourself positions you higher than other people. It can make others feel they are somehow less than you — and that is not conducive to a positive working relationship or environment.
Self-advocacy is different. It’s about sharing who you are, what you do, and why you do it — in a way that helps people see how you might be able to help them, and in a way that positions you to help your organization.
When you self-advocate, your motivation is to tell people about your work so you can be helpful. Your inner voice is saying the same thing as your outer voice. That’s what it means to be authentic.
When women hold back, it creates a barrier to advancement. It’s also a barrier to the advancement of their company, which is not using all the talent and resources of its employees.
How can women break free from the fear of self-advocacy?
Here’s one strategy I recommend. Take out a piece of paper and pen, and then:
- Make a list of everything you’ve done in the last year that has contributed to your organization’s business success. You must list a minimum of ten actions.
- Put a check mark beside each accomplishment that your direct manager knows about and has commented on.
- Put a star by those accomplishments that are known by your industry or professional community.
Was that hard or easy to do? For many of my clients, it’s an ‘ah-ha’ moment. They finally begin to understand that to be promoted, you must promote yourself.
Most of the time we accomplish a task and then move on to the next one without thinking about the effort, skill and outcome of what we did. But if we don’t think that way, why would others — our colleagues, bosses, managers, or influential people in our field? They’re not mind readers.
So the next time you hesitate to toot your own horn, remember: you’re not bragging — you’re self-advocating.
Dana Rubin is the CEO of VizibilityLab, a consultancy that develops female talent to be visible and influential thought leaders.