Stop Being So Modest! Why Women in Business Need to Get Comfortable with Bragging
“Women do not brag enough," Shonda Rhimes declared in a speech back in October.
"The other day, I came to this conclusion that men brag and women hide," the TV mogul said at Elle magazine's Women in Hollywood event in October. “Even when they don't deserve to brag, men brag -- like Trump and Kavanaugh. When men do deserve to brag, they are good at it.”
As anyone who’s followed the escapades of Elon Musk knows, we don’t have to look far to find examples of male bragging gone awry. Steve Jobs was a notable example; the Apple co-founder was widely criticized for his hubris and for being “shameless about stealing great ideas."
And, yes, sometimes men do pay the social price of unfettered arrogance. But more often, as Rhimes noted, boasts from men barely cause a ripple, while those from women trigger a public backlash.
A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and two other institutions showed that bragging elicits a negative reaction from those on the receiving end. Yet at the same time, cultural bias makes it both more common and more socially acceptable for men to self-promote. Sound familiar?
The truth is that all of us (yes, this includes women) can be harder on women than men are.
This “female problem,” perpetuated by gender norms that enforce expectations of modesty in women, can have implications in both corporate life and entrepreneurship. Research by Women of Influence and Thomson Reuters reported that, “Women cling to an outmoded assumption that their achievements will speak for themselves.” Notice that the study said "outmoded." In fact, the study found self-promotion to be the second biggest pitfall for women in business.
This finding rings true with me: A deep discomfort with self-promotion, I believe, is what kept me from launching my own business for years. And now, as the owner of a brand strategy consultancy, I can empathize with my female clients’ struggles to promote themselves and step up as the face of their brand.
Being overly modest, in fact, can present a real problem in the world of entrepreneurship. It’s one thing to be too humble in the workplace, where at least your colleagues and supervisors can witness the quality of your work. But if you’re too modest in the entrepreneurial world, what’s going to get people to come through your doors in the first place?
When you’re building a strong brand, whether you're male or female, your customers need to be able to immediately identify what it is that sets you apart from the pack -- what makes you the choice. Being shy about it is not going to help you or your potential clients. You might be the answer to their problems, but they’ll never know it if you downplay your greatness.
So how can you, as a female business owner who's uncomfortable with bragging, find a balance between self-promotion and sales-diminishing modesty? Here are a few actions to take:
1. Begin by pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.
This is not about Kanye West levels of boastfulness. Simply embrace the discomfort of being a bit bolder than you normally would, and realize that the very fact you’re worried about coming across as arrogant means you have much more leeway than you think.
Start with practicing to receive a compliment, which can be especially challenging for some women founders. If someone praises you on your client work, instead of deflecting those words and downplaying your achievements, try saying, “Thank you! We’re really proud of the results.”
If your business is booming and someone asks you how it’s going, don't modestly shrug and say, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.” Don't promptly change the subject. Instead, answer honestly: “Things are going great! We’ve had a really good year!”
These exercises are deceptively simple. With decades of societal pressure and conditioning to make others feel comfortable by being modest and deferential, women face an uphill climb. Acts as simple as receiving compliments and being frank about your accomplishments can feel unnatural.
That's got to change.
2. Don’t be stingy with your knowledge.
Women entrepreneurs can struggle talking about themselves, but there are other ways to share what you know.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling everyone how much of an expert you are in digital advertising, real estate or whatever your line of work, there are other ways to share and establish your authority. Blog posts, email newsletters and workshops are just a few of the ways to show what you know.
Have you ever looked at an instructor at the front of a classroom or conference and regarded that person as boastful because he or she was teaching you something? Of course not! If you’re providing your audience with useful information, its members will be grateful, not annoyed.
3. Show your results.
For female founders who don’t want to come off as too self-promotional, showing not telling is a simple way to reframe how you talk about your strengths. Instead of claiming to be “great at XYZ,” point to specific results you’ve achieved. Whether you’ve tripled your business growth or have impressive client case studies to share, pointing to tangible, measurable results is a better bet than making broad, unsupported proclamations.
Plus, relying on hard data can remove the emotion from the equation, making it easier for your audience to accept and for you to share.
4. Let your clients brag for you.
Client testimonials are a key tool for building social proof without feeling boastful. If you’re a service-based business owner who feels uncomfortable asking outright for a client testimonial, choose your timing wisely to make that ask feel natural and less awkward. When is a good time? The answer is when you’re about to wrap up a project and the client is at the peak of his or her excitement and delight about what you’ve created.
If asking for a testimonial still feels too bold, try requesting that your client complete a wrap-up questionnaire. Not only will this provide valuable constructive feedback on you, but you might find testimonial-worthy material there. Gather this positive feedback from your questionnaire, and ask if it’s OK to use it as a testimonial.
Next, you may have to deal with the fact that writing out a testimonial may feel to your client like a burdensome homework assignment. Here, the client might appreciate your doing the heavy lifting and piecing together the review yourself. (Note: Of course be sure to get your clients’ approval before sharing anything publicly!)
You can also encourage happy customers to leave a review on social media and review sites like Yelp. Depending on the type of product or service you offer, you may even want to incentivize customers with a prize or a discount on future purchases. As you collect these testimonials, display them proudly on your site, in your marketing collateral and in your social media posts.
Finally, keep exercising that self-promotion muscle! You'll find that this will feel more natural over time. Worst-case scenario? No one may notice. Best case? You’ll raise your profile in a genuine, well-deserved way. And, you’ll get noticed by the people you most want to reach.