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Why Shameless Self-promotion Backfires at Work



FEATURED FACULTY

Maurice Schweitzer

WRITTEN BY

Angie Basiouny


If you want to brag about your accomplishments at work without sounding self-absorbed, take a lesson from professional athletes.

From the sidelines and at post-game press conferences, the most admired players talk about their own performance but always mention the strength of their opponents, the skill of their teammates, and the support of their coaches.

“They’ll thank and acknowledge other people and talk about their accomplishments in ways that make them appear much more likeable,” Wharton management professor Maurice Schweitzer said during an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast.)

The tactic is known as dual-promotion, and it’s the focus of Schweitzer’s latest paper with co-authors Eric VanEpps, marketing professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, and Einav Hart, organizational behavior professor at George Mason University’s School of Business.

Why Dual-promotion Beats Shameless Self-promotion

The professors point out that everyone is trying to make a good impression in professional, social, and even romantic settings. They broadcast their accomplishments and tout their successes, hoping to be seen in the most positive light. But that can backfire into braggadocio.

“We run the risk of projecting competence but harming our warmth and likeability,” Schweitzer said. “Here’s something we try to do all the time and we constantly struggle to get it right. It brought us to think about how can we do this better.”

“In cooperative contexts and in competitive contexts, people derive great benefits from dual-promotion.”— Maurice Schweitzer

To answer that question, the scholars conducted 11 studies to compare strategies for boasting, and they found that dual-promotion is the most effective.

According to the paper, a person who describes their own accomplishments while complimenting others is perceived as competent because they document their own accomplishments and have the expertise to evaluate their colleagues or competitors, confident because they don’t mind shining the spotlight on others, and collaborative because they speak in inclusive terms. All that makes dual-promoters seem more kind, trustworthy, and intelligent.

“No matter what your competitor does, you’re better off engaging in dual-promotion,” Schweitzer said. “In cooperative contexts and in competitive contexts, people derive great benefits from dual-promotion.”

Dual-Promotion Makes Politicians More Electable

In their experiments, the professors measured favorable impressions of dual- and self-promotion in the job interviewing process, in joint and independent tasks, and in politics. For the latter, they analyzed 10 years’ worth of annual reports filed by members of Congress to compare the kinds of promotion that elected leaders included in their writings.

“These year-in-review statements are particularly well-suited for our investigation because politicians are extremely concerned about the impressions they create,” they wrote in the paper. Congressional members are constantly raising money, running for reelection, have staff to manage their communications, and have a wide range of independent and collaborative tasks.

“We’re so focused on our own accomplishments … that we often lose sight of the other people who helped us get there.”— Maurice Schweitzer

“As a result, members of Congress have ample opportunities to engage in self-promotion, other-promotion, and dual-promotion,” the scholars wrote.

After analyzing the reports, they followed up with a survey that found registered voters were more likely to vote for the politicians who engaged in dual-promotion rather than self- or other-promotion.

Less Shameless Self-promotion, More Collaboration

Schweitzer — who put his own research into practice by crediting his co-authors during his interview — said dual-promotion should be a significant part of remote and hybrid work. The loss of “water-cooler conversations” and other casual interactions, along with increased use of technology, can isolate colleagues. Yet they need to cooperate to get work done.

“We have to share knowledge. We’ve got to work together. Projects are more complicated,” he said of the challenge of managing remote and hybrid work. “I don’t think we need to collaborate less. We need to collaborate more.”

Schweitzer encouraged people to “take a step back” from self-promotion and take in the perspective of others by listening more intently and behaving more inclusively.

“We’re so focused on our own accomplishments, we’re trying to project how great we are to everybody else, that we often lose sight of the other people who helped us get there,” he said.

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