You think you’re sharing a success story, but your colleagues may be thinking something very different. Rob Yeung talks about the skill of self-presentation
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This article was first published in the October 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
When you are called for a job interview, you clearly need to talk about your achievements and personal qualities to win over the interviewers and secure the position. But beware: the same self-presentational tactics that can land you the job may easily end up backfiring in other workplace scenarios.
Imagine for a moment that you have successfully completed a challenging assignment or won an award at work. You are feeling happy – even exuberant. If you should now share the story of your success with a colleague, to what extent do you think the recipients of your story would feel happy for you too?
A study led by Irene Scopelliti at Cass Business School in London found that most people overestimate the extent to which the recipients of a success story will feel proud of and happy for them. Scopelliti’s team found that people telling positive stories imagined that the recipients would tend to experience positive emotions 38% of the time; in fact, recipients reported feeling positive emotions just 14% of the time.
People sharing success stories also underestimate the extent to which their recipients will experience negative emotions such as annoyance or envy. The Cass team found that people telling positive stories imagined that recipients might experience negative emotions 28% of the time; in reality, recipients of such stories often viewed what they were being told as bragging and responded negatively 72% of the time. In other words, nearly three-quarters of audiences who listen to or read positive stories experience some negative emotions as a result.
The study suggests that talking about successes and achievements may have unintended consequences. The people around you may not only fail to share your joy, they may even feel annoyed by or envious of you.
Another common self-presentational error is the humblebrag, which behavioural scientist Ovul Sezer and her colleagues define as bragging masked by complaint or humility.
I once heard an executive say: ‘I’m tired of getting so many calls from headhunters.’ The ‘I’m tired of’ part of the sentence implies a complaint, but ‘getting so many calls from headhunters’ sounds like an attempt to convey the idea of an individual so clever or talented they are highly sought after.
Likewise, I have heard comments such as ‘I don’t understand why I’m always the one who has to sort everything out’, and ‘my boss keeps giving me bigger and bigger projects, which is just weird’.
In fact, Sezer and her research collaborators found that people who humblebrag tend to be judged more harshly by observers than those engaged in outright bragging. Observers said they consider humblebraggers both less likeable and less competent than the more straightforward braggers.
Other research has found that humblebraggers tend to get judged so severely because they are perceived as insincere. Sincerity is such an important element in interpersonal interaction that both braggers and complainers are viewed as more sincere – and therefore more likeable – than humblebraggers.
However, one of the worst self-presentational strategies of all in the workplace is hypocrisy, which Utrecht University researcher Janina Steinmetz and colleagues define as an attempt to convey a positive image while failing to act in a way that lives up to that image. I have come across more than a few executives who encourage workers to behave with empathy and consideration for customers yet are themselves aggressive and harshly critical.
A significant proportion of leaders engage in hypocrisy – often without realising it – which can greatly damage their likeability and ability to lead. Hypocrites who counsel behaving in one way but themselves behave in another tend to be judged more harshly in the long run than those who may behave in the same manner but do not speak out against such behaviour.
If you want to discover whether you are applying self-presentational strategies ineffectively in managing your public image to boost your professional prospects, ask your colleagues and customers for candid feedback on how you really come across.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk
CPD technical article
"People who humblebrag tend to be judged more harshly by observers than those engaged in outright bragging"