How to Promote Yourself Without Seeming Like a Jerk

3 min read

Engaging in self-promotion can feel like a balancing act. Highlighting your own skills and accomplishments is necessary if you want to come across as skilled and competent. As the quote goes, “If you don’t toot your own horn, there’s no music.”

At the same time, going too far can backfire and leave a negative impression on others. People who try to come across as more competent than they actually are will be judged negatively by others (Heck & Krueger, 2016). There is a point at which self-confidence loses its value and veers into arrogance.

Are there ways to promote yourself without seeming arrogant?

New research from Kelly Nault, Ozer Sezer, and Nadav Klein (2023) suggests that focusing on your journey—the path taken to achieve your accomplishments, and the challenges you’ve overcome along the way—allows you to be seen as warm and sincere while still engaging in self-promotion. Arguably, when people explain their journeys (instead of just focusing on their final accomplishments), they reveal more about the authentic skills, abilities, and limitations that have helped them to achieve success.

The Value of Sharing Your Journey

Across several studies, Nault and colleagues examined the LinkedIn introductory bios of recent MBA graduates. They asked a separate group of participants to rate the authors based on how warm (good natured and sincere) and competent (ambitious and persistent) they appeared. When authors focused on describing both their journeys and their outcomes they were seen as significantly warmer (for example, they were seen as more tolerant and sincere) than authors who focused only on describing their final outcomes.

The benefits of sharing journey information were driven primarily by perceptions of humility. Those who openly shared their challenges came across as humble and capable of acknowledging their own strengths and limitations. In turn, people who seemed humble were more likely to be evaluated as warmer and less manipulative.

Importantly, including a description of a journey did not negatively impact perceptions of competence. There was no downside when authors shared information about the challenges they had overcome.

In fact, some studies found that including information about journeys could positively impact perceptions of competence. When you share your difficulties, people will not look down on you for struggling. Instead, they’re more likely to admire you for having overcome personal challenges.

These results have important implications for job seekers, as Nault and colleagues also found the same results when studying the perceptions of trained HR professionals.

Journeys Matter More in Written Introductions

In most of Nault and colleagues’ studies, the researchers examined how journeys influence perceptions in written introductions. But they also conducted a study to examine whether journey information would have the same positive effects in video introductions.

Surprisingly, journey information had no significant effect on perceptions of warmth in video introductions.

In written communications, we judge a person solely based on the words they choose. But when we can see a person face-to-face (or face-to-video) we judge them on many other dimensions. When judging a video of another person, perceptions of warmth are influenced by factors like nonverbal behaviors and physical appearances (the clothes they wear and whether they have a friendly-looking face or not).

For job seekers, the present results suggest that sharing information about your journey can play a valuable role in your written introductions (your bio on LinkedIn, or your cover letters for job applications), but it is probably less important when you show up for your interview.

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