Toot (Don’t Blow) Your Own Horn

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, May 31, 2005

Q: I see other colleagues in my department moving ahead, being promoted and recognized for their achievements. I am glad for them. Yet, I wonder what I am doing wrong, since I feel I am being passed over and no one seems to know what I am doing. Some days, I feel like I am still a resident, working hard in the trenches while others get the glory. How can I have my achievements recognized?

A: The quick answer—promote yourself! Brag is not a dirty word.

Many physicians work hard to please others, yet retain a sense of insecurity and self-doubt. They feel uncomfortable with approval or positive feedback. We assume that if we work hard, we will be recognized and rewarded. We remain quiet about our work, downplay our successes and let others take credit for our achievements. We feel the right way is to “just do a good job; let others notice us.” Such attitude and behaviour is seriously limiting in our careers.

A colleague recently applied for promotion in his academic department, and jokingly stated that one needed to have a narcissistic personality to fill out the forms, which required he promote himself and his work. At a workshop on preparing a promotion application, another colleague remarked how this application process felt demeaning and said, “They should find out what we do and how well we do it, and just give us the promotion when we deserve it.”

The message is the same—one must learn to promote oneself. This is important in 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 holds one back at work and in relationships. She gives specific suggestions to communicate talents and accomplishments without sounding like a walking billboard.

Tell colourful stories about yourself. At a meeting or function, 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. Relay these stories with passion using specific details.

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.

Show excitement about your life. This is enjoyable and contagious. Cultivate this feeling with words like “I am so happy about. . . .” Use humour to your advantage. 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.

Get involved, serve on committees, help out and meet key people in the organization. Once you meet these important people, follow-up. At a conference, I once met the chairman of the psychiatry department at a very prestigious university. He made a few complimentary comments about my keynote presentation, until someone more important than me came and whisked him away. When I returned home, I sent him a quick postcard thanking him for his kind words. He replied with a request for me to present grand rounds at his university!

Write your own biography. Make it proud, crisp and punchy. It is amazing how often others will use it word-for-word. Tell others when you achieve something—your peers and those in authority.

Do not be shy about awards, papers you wrote, an idea you had or a challenging patient you helped. Accept praise and compliments without downplaying or dismissing them. Say “thank you.”

Self-promotion is undeniably a necessary skill in today’s medical workplace. 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 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.