HBR: "How to Adapt to American-Style Self-Promotion"

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by Andy Molinsky and Dorie Clark  |   8:00 AM April 7, 2014

Imagine you’re at a networking event in the United States and you hear your colleague make the following statement to a potential employer:
“… I’d be very interested in learning more about your company to see if there might be a fit for me.  Before doing my MBA, I worked at Bain Consulting and then prior to that was an officer in the army…”
Understanding that this is only a portion of the conversation, how would you judge what you happened to hear? As:
(a)  Too self-promotional: the person is speaking too positively about himself for the situation.
(b)  Not self-promotional enough:  should give more details at this point in the conversation about specific accomplishments at Bain (such as projects completed or impact on clients) as well as additional information about military service.
(c)   Just about right:  This is self-promotional, but the context allows it and the person is providing appropriate and relevant information to position himself in a positive light.
Typically, most Americans choose option C. Sure, it’s a bit self-promotional, but this is taking place at a networking event, so the potential employer is probably expecting comments like this. What’s interesting, however, is the reaction Andy often gets from his foreign-born MBA students about the same scenario.  To many of them, the language feels overly self-promotional — like the person is really boasting about himself in an inappropriate manner.  And this points to a thorny cross-cultural challenge many foreign-born professionals face here in the United States, especially when networking or interviewing:  the challenges of American-style self-promotion.
It’s hard to quantify, but we believe the United States is the most overtly self-promotional country in the world.  Certainly there is variance among cities, regions, industries, and especially individuals. But overall, American professionals are often quite comfortable promoting themselves, especially in a business environment — and that behavior is actively encouraged as a sign of competence and self-confidence. That’s simply not true in most other countries and cultures, from East Asia to Latin America to most of Europe. Even in the United Kingdom, where we share a language, Andy’s research has revealed that overt, American-style self-promotion is taboo.
But here’s the challenge:  Many young professionals strive to find work and progress up the organizational ladder here in the United States.  And to do that, they need to learn to self-promote.  In interviews and at networking events, they need to emphasize what they themselves have achieved and accomplished (opposed to emphasizing only what the “team” has accomplished).  And when on the job, they need to self-promote to a certain degree, to establish a reputation as someone who can add value and contribute to the bottom line.
So how can young, foreign-born professionals learn to act outside their personal and cultural comfort zones to promote themselves and their accomplishments?
First, as we discussed in our previous post, “Self-Promotion for Professionals from Countries Where Bragging Is Bad,” it’s important to reframe your concept of personal branding. If you think of it as phony show-boating, you’re never going to want to even attempt it, which means you’re missing out on the professional benefits of being recognized by others. Instead, focus on the big picture — such as making a difference and helping your company — and you’re far more likely to want to make an honest effort.
Next, make sure you understand the actual level of self-promotion that’s acceptable and appropriate for the specific situation you find yourself in. Because many foreign-born professionals are so shocked by American levels of self-promotion, they often overestimate how much is being done. The danger is that when they dive in and attempt it themselves, they risk overcompensating. What they miss is that there is a zone of appropriateness and acceptability for self-promotion, even in American culture, and that when you go outside the zone, you’ll be seen as arrogant and boastful. So make sure you recognize the “zone of appropriateness.”
It’s also critical to learn your own “personal comfort zone” with respect to these rules.  How much of a gap is there, for example, between how you’d naturally and comfortably act in a given situation and how you need to act to be effective?  And if there is a gap, as there is with so many foreign-born students and professionals we work with, you will need to develop a strategy for bridging this gap. Perhaps you can create rules of thumb to follow in certain situations. For instance, if you meet someone at a networking event and they ask a question about how you’re spending your time, you can be sure to mention your involvement in your alumni group — which simultaneously shows that you’re an active and engaged professional, and highlights your affiliation to a top-tier school. And at a very basic level, don’t be caught flat-footed when someone asks, “What have you been up to lately?” Be sure to have a good answer ready, so you can demonstrate your expertise.
Finally, find yourself a cultural mentor who is familiar with how self-promotion works in the US and, ideally, who can also empathize with the challenges that you face as an outsider to this culture. Good cross-cultural mentors are worth their weight in gold.  They can help you master the new culture code, identify your own personal comfort zone, diagnose the gap you experience between how you need to act and how you’d typically act, and then help you strategize solutions.
In no time, with these pieces in place, you’ll be able to self-promote in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re losing yourself in the process.