Don’t be a humblebragger

27 January, 2020

Despite being a popular strategy for self-promotion, humblebragging is surprisingly ineffective

In job interviews, one of the questions that is often asked is “what is your biggest weakness”. Think about how you respond to this question. The common answers that I have heard are “I am a perfectionist”, or “I work too hard” or “I am too nice to others”. Generally, these responses are a veiled attempt to make strengths appear as weaknesses.

Whether it is in interviews or otherwise, we all like to brag about our accomplishments. However, bragging can be quite tricky. Take a look at these statements:

“I can’t believe they want me to give a talk in front of thousands of people!”

“I’m so tired of being the only person that my boss can trust to train the new team members.”

“I hate when first class is no different than economy. #wasteofmoney”

These are examples of humble bragging, defined as “bragging masked by a complaint or humility”. While people use it to share their accomplishments or make themselves feel more important, it can backfire and make people like you less (instead of more). These were the findings of research from Harvard Business School and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, authors Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton concluded that although humblebragging is increasingly in vogue, it is sadly counterproductive.

So, this week, my message focuses on humblebragging. Why do people employ false modesty, and why is it so ineffective?And what is a better way to present your accomplishments?

Self-presentation is a vital aspect of social interaction – be it with family and friends, colleagues and clients, or the world at large (like on social media). The ability to present oneself effectively plays a key role in everything from relationships to professional success. We use various strategies to create a positive impression – including humblebragging, which comes in two flavours:

  • Complaint based (for example, “It’s so hard to choose between Lexus and BMW.”)
  • Humility based (for example, “I can’t understand why I won the team member of the month.”)

Why is humblebragging so common? 

Because people believe it works. If you humblebrag, it’s probably because you want others to admire your positive qualities – but you also feel the need to disguise your boasts. You want to be seen as impressive yet also modest (humility based) or worthy of sympathy (complaint based). Unfortunately, humblebrags fail to bring about the desired effect: instead of getting the two-in-one benefits you want, you end up being disliked and perceived as less capable.

False modesty fails primarily because of its insincerity, which creates a strongly negative impression. (Ironically, we can see through other people’s fake boasts quite easily, yet we believe our own humblebragging to be very smooth!)

The deception is so off-putting, in fact, that people prefer straight-out bragging to humblebragging – yes, it’s aggravating but at least it’s genuine.

As the researchers explain in the paper mentioned above:

Both forms of humblebragging-complaint-based or humility-based-are less effective than straightforward bragging, as they reduce liking, perceived competence, compliance with requests, and financial generosity.

At the workplace, people use humblebragging as a way to bring their performance and skills into the spotlight. For example:

  • “When I found out that I actually got an offer from here and I got another offer from another job on the same day, it was the worst.”
  • “Why do I always get asked to work on the most important assignment?” 

The negative perception created by humblebragging has tangible consequences, spelled out in the Forbes piece, ‘Humblebragging’ is a Bad Strategy, Especially in a Job Interview, by Carmen Nobel:

The researchers investigated whether people treat humblebraggers worse than they treat braggers. “We predicted that people would allocate less money to humblebraggers than to braggers in a dictator game,” they explain in the paper. (A common tool in experimental economics, the dictator game has one player determining how to split an endowment between himself and another player.)

The prediction bore out…. those paired with braggers allocated more money than those paired with humblebraggers.

Rather than humblebragging, why not try these suggestions instead?

1. Be more straightforward

Instead of putting people off with cringe-worthy humblebrags, why not share your achievements in a more direct style? It’s okay to talk about your success occasionally – don’t hide or apologise for it. Take a look at these well-known examples from celebrities on social media, which were viewed as extremely irritating and insincere by the Internet. Can you think of a more straightforward way to communicate the message?

  • Actress Cat Deeley tweeted: “So I have to go to both Emmy awards!! . . . Two dresses!!!?!?!” Instead of “I have to go to both Emmy awards” (which makes it sounds like a hardship), she could simply have said “I’m going to both Emmy awards”.
  • Comedian Bill Maher wrote: “Just getting to Book Review section—forgot I had a book out! Seeing it on New York Times bestseller list is a thrill (it is pretty funny)” He should have opted for a more honest statement like “Seeing my book on the New York Times bestseller list is thrilling!”

2. Get someone else to do the bragging for you

Lead researcher Ovul Sezer suggests finding yourself a “wingman” for tooting your horn, such as a work friend or trusted associate. This way, you get to make a positive impression without being the source of the brags. Wingman duties can be extended to written forums such as your LinkedIn profile or personal website. In Humblebragging – How to Avoid the Cringe Factor, Charlotte Day explains:

Third-party content in the form of reviews, testimonials are a great way to draw attention to your brand without bragging. Content generated by others has an authentic feel which will heighten feelings of sincerity.

3. Share vulnerability

If it’s sympathy and help you’re seeking, be straightforward about what you’re struggling with – don’t cover it up with a feel-good, look-good factor. Another of the study’s authors, Francesa Gino of Harvard Business School, recommends sharing vulnerability as a way to increase authenticity and connect with others more deeply. When teaching Negotiation, for example, she tells her MBA students a story about messing up a crucial negotiation in her own life. As Gino says:

“I think the students appreciate hearing the story-we can all learn from our own mistakes (and those of others!).”

So, next time you’re tempted to humblebrag, resist. In what other ways can you draw positive attention to your achievements?


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