‘Don’t be so humble, you are not that great,’ sail former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. This quote was a wake-up call for me when I read it. For years, I used self-deprecation as my go-to tactic to build rapport.
I grew up in a small village. I was the best student in my class, and I hated it. Being more academic than my classmates made me a target for social isolation. I felt that the Japanese were right: ‘The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.”
I developed many techniques to avoid getting hammered down in school. The most significant of them was self-deprecation. It served me well back then as it allowed me to enter the ‘cool kids’ crew. Hiding achievements and revealing vulnerabilities became my social modus operandi.
It was years later that I realized that I was shooting myself in the foot. What worked well in school, was an impediment in the business world. As author Marianne Williamson said: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
I was not alone. Research shows that 70% of the time, the humor women use in business is based on self-deprecation. And almost nobody is laughing.
FT’s Kellaway writes:
“Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it.”
Given the common bias that women are not good leaders, self-deprecating humor is seen, at best, as unfunny, and at worst, as a sign of being unfit for leadership.
Self-deprecation is not only harmful to women. Irrespective of your gender, research shows that self-deprecating humor makes you less attractive to the other sex if you are perceived to be lower status. So, if you are on your way to the top, but not there yet, talking yourself down will only shine a light on your weaknesses.
But, even when you reach the top, humility and self-deprecation can backfire as an HBR-published study reveals. It might be interpreted as weakness, indecisiveness, or lack of confidence. Researchers found that when team members expect the leader to be dominant, the leader’s humility reduces the team’s psychological safety.
You do not need to talk bad about yourself to get people to like you
People think that self-deprecation will make them more likable. There is not enough proof of this being true. I even stumbled upon a study that found that people like better those who promote themselves than those who talk themselves down. And they like the ones who give a balanced view of themselves the best.
There are effective tactics to make people like you that do not make you look incompetent or needy. Here are some of them:
Any of these tactics, if genuine, will work better for your likability than excessive humility.
How to self-promote without coming across as arrogant
Stopping self-deprecation is not enough. You need to find the courage to shine. Children can be great teachers for this as they love to share and celebrate their achievements.
You have to build your credibility before people listen to what you have to say or buy what you have to sell. Especially if stereotypes work against you.
I led a workshop recently, and I was asked to share a trajectory of my career. To implement what I teach, I pushed myself outside my comfort zone regarding self-promotion. I shared facts that I used to omit. From my university distinction to the revenue I managed when I was working at Google.
Even I was surprised when I received the workshop’s feedback. Nobody mentioned that I came across as arrogant as I had feared. It was the best workshop feedback I had ever received. My hypothesis is that my credibility-building in the beginning helped make people more engaged.
There are ways to establish your credibility without coming across as arrogant. Here are some ideas:
Have someone else sing your merits
Share your credentials while focusing on why they matter to the audience
Keep to the facts rather than the skills you think you have. It is not bragging if you can back it up.
Unless you are already at the top of your pyramid, you need to be careful with excessive humility or self-deprecation. There are better ways to make people like you. Also, self-promoting does not have to alienate others. Done gracefully, it can make them lean forward instead. I would love to hear how you do it in the comments.
Caterina is an Executive Coach and Founder of www.theleaderpath.com. Before, she was a Global Business Leader at Google.
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