Why do we find it so hard to promote ourselves? I was speaking to a colleague after a meeting and she was reviewing what had just happened in disbelief. The main topic of discussion had been about creating a new program; but there was no suggestion that she lead it, in spite of her being the one who had highlighted the issue, done the background work in promoting the need for the program, and had the most expertise in that field. It was stated that it would be a great idea, “but who would run it?” She had kept quiet, assuming that everyone knew what she had done to date, that she was the expert, interested and capable. “I figured that if I worked hard enough and showed them what I can do, they would offer me the position.” That did not happen. Because something else did not happen – she did not promote herself. Brag is not a four-letter word.
As physicians, we work hard to be ‘good’, and to please others. However, we may retain a sense of insecurity and self-doubt. We are uncomfortable with approval or positive feedback. We assume that if we work hard, we will be recognized and rewarded. We learn to remain quiet about our work and achievements, and downplay our successes. We even let others take credit for our achievements. We feel the right way is to “Just do a good job; let others notice us”. While this thinking and behavior helped us work hard, achieve and get into and through medical school, such attitude and behavior is seriously limiting in our careers as leaders.
A colleague recently applied for promotion in his academic department, and jokingly stated that one needed to have a narcissistic personality to properly fill out the forms, which required you to say how great you are and how recognized your work is. At a workshop on preparing a promotion application, another colleague remarked how this application process felt so awful and demeaning, that “they should find out what we do and how well we do it, and just give us the promotion when they realize we deserve it.”
The message is clear – one must learn to promote oneself. This is important in all parts of daily life at work, not just when we are formally applying for promotion. In her book, “Brag! The art of tooting your own horn without blowing it”, Peggy Klaus speaks of the myth of modesty being a virtue, and discusses how this can hold one back in the workplace, in building relationships and feeling confident and powerful. There are some productive things we can do to communicate our talents and accomplishments, without sounding like a walking billboard.
Get involved, serve on committees, help out, and meet key people in the organization. Once you meet these important people, follow up on the contact. Send a quick email, a post card, or a thank you note. I once met the Chair of the Psychiatry Department at a very prestigious university, at a conference where I presented. He made a few complimentary comments at the end of my keynote presentations, until someone else came up and whisked him away. When I returned home, I sent him a quick postcard thanking him for his kind words, and made sure to include my contact information. He replied with a request for me to be a visiting professor at his university!
Talk to people, not at them. Ask others about themselves, really listen to their answers, and make good eye contact. Look for cues to bring up your own experiences when the timing is right, and sow productive seeds of information about yourself, and what you are doing.
Tell others, both your peers as well as those in authority, when you achieve something. Do not be shy about telling about an award, a paper you wrote, an idea you had, or a challenging patient you helped. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. Accept praise and compliments, without downplaying or dismissing them. Say Thank you.
Speak up when you want something. Don’t wait to be invited. Asking does not come easily to us. We often feel that we should not have to ask, that others should just know what we want and/or deserve and give it to us. It helps to be clear, direct, and succinct. Sound confident. This is not easy but gets easier with practice and results. “Fake it until you make it.”
Use the “best friend” technique. Imagine you are your best friend. Consider how you would introduce yourself to everyone, with positive support. Plan to meet at least three new people at each meeting or event you attend. Smile at others, and establish and maintain eye contact. Tell interesting stories about yourself. Plan to never be tongue-tied again. Have a “brag bag “ ready – a list of interesting information about things you have done, fascinating trips, unusual hobbies, challenging or funny situations you have been in. Tell your stories with passion, and use specific details.
Write your own impressive bio. Include things you are very proud of. Make it crisp and punchy. It is amazing how often others will use it word for word. Sum up your work or reputation in one word or phrase; this makes it easier to connect you to that achievement.
The colleague in the opening vignette decided to meet with the Committee Chair the day after the meeting. “I have taken time to think after yesterday’s meeting. I know that I am the right person to lead the program and I would like to be considered for the position”. He told her he was glad she had followed up him, as he agreed she would do an excellent job but assumed that she would have spoken up if she wanted it.
Self-promotion is undeniably a necessary skill in today’s medical workplace. Everyone is working hard at their own job, doing more with less in today’s health care environment. If you don’t tell others what you are doing, they may be too busy to find out.
Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.