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Communications expert Peggy Klaus on bragging and women in the workplace

Communications expert Peggy Klaus on bragging and women in the workplace

There’s no shortage of advice for women in the workplace, but frustratingly often it comes in the form of broad maxims like “lean in” or “create a personal brand” instead of actionable, tactical practices. How exactly do I lean in? Does my personal brand require more than an up-to-date LinkedIn profile?

So, we sat down to talk brass tacks with Peggy Klaus, a leadership and communications advisor to brands from Gap to Goldman Sachs. Across her 20 year career coaching corporate clients on personal communications and leadership skills, she’s had a front row seat to the disparate expectations of men and women in the workplace. But just because the playing field isn’t even, doesn’t mean you can’t get ahead. In her 2003 book, Brag! The art of tooting your horn without blowing it, she debuted her patented method of self-promotion, which she posits is the key to getting ahead in the workplace, especially for women who may not be natural-born braggers.

Becca Freeman: What are the key differences in the way that women and men operate in the workplace?
Peggy Klaus: The workplace is just a microcosm of greater society. You’ve got different societal norms for men than there are for women. Men are encouraged and taught to be ambitious, confident in stating their opinions, self-promotional, vocally loud, [and] have a swagger. [For] women, there are different expectations. It’s to be softer spoken, nurturing, accommodating, putting others first, [and] deferential.

And so, what you have when this coalesces in the workplace, is that women are held to what I call, a “narrower band” of acceptable behavior and communications than are men. And men and women of color are held to an even narrower band. I’ve been around many conference room tables where it’s still acceptable, albeit tacitly, for a man to pound his fists on the table [and] use expletives when making a point. However, if a woman does that very same behavior, she gets her proverbial wrist slapped so fast she barely knows what hit her. And she’s labeled strident, difficult, and of course, the ultimate, a bitch. The men, of course, are labeled confident, strong, decisive.

So while this narrow band is very difficult to navigate, I do contend that women can do it — they just have to be more mindful about how they communicate and behave.

BF: So is this where bragging comes in? Don’t most people generally think of bragging as a bad thing?
PK: There are a lot of taboos about bragging — familial, cultural, societal, and religious. And we believed them because all of us know people who are disgusting braggers.

They are people who talk incessantly, who never ask a question about you, who constantly bring the conversation back to themselves, who exaggerate, who steal credit, who condescend, the list goes on and on. So, we never want to be like those people.

But, my whole “raison d’etre” is that there’s a way [to brag] where it draws people to you rather than repels them. You [can] be both graceful and artful when talking about your accomplishments.

BF: How does one brag gracefully?
The definition of good bragging is a way of talking about yourself, your ideas, your accomplishments in a very short, pithy, conversational story with a few — not a laundry list — tidbits, what I call “brag nuggets.” [For example], information about you said by a client or a colleague, or an accomplishment. It’s said with enthusiasm, passion, and a delight to be telling this to your audience. And that’s how you brag about yourself.

BF: So, are men naturally better braggers than women?
Men are not better braggers, they just do it more. And women, going back to the culture norms, having been taught [bragging] is not ladylike, that you talk about the man, that you’ll never get a husband if you do not shine the light on him.

BF: So let’s suppose we’re in the workplace, is bragging something that you want to be doing ongoing? Or do you mostly bring out your brags when you’re up for a promotion or negotiating salary?
My rule of thumb is you want to be prepared 24/7. You don’t want to do it 24/7, because then you are that horrific bragger that everyone wants to get away from.

Let me give you an example. I have something called “fly bys.” And a fly by is something that happens all the time in the workplace: a colleague, a boss, a boss’ boss, the CEO of the company, flies by you in the hall, flies by your desk, flies by you in the cafeteria, and they ask you, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” And you, if you’re like 99.9% of the rest of the workplace population, [you] will say “Not bad.” “Okay.” “Nothing.”

Which is a really terrible answer, because you have missed the opportunity in that short exchange to mention something to him or her that will let them know what you’re doing. And, if it’s your boss or teammate, it’s really good for them to know.

If your boss comes in on Monday and says, “Where’s the report?” and you say, “I put it on your desk.” Well that’s true, but it’s not really a good fly by. A better fly by would be, “It’s on your desk, and I’m really excited for you to read it because the team worked over the weekend and I edited it a lot on Sunday, and I think we solved some of problems with the account that you and I were talking about.”

BF: Other than failing to self-promote, what are other common pitfalls you see women making early in their careers?
I see women failing to spend as much time thinking about and planning out their careers as their male colleagues do.

They rarely say, “That’s where I want to end up.” Instead, they kind of plod along, putting one foot in front of the other, doing their jobs really well. But they don’t spend the time to assess their skills, analyze their talents, get that very direct, consistent feedback, and so they let things happen to them, rather than being proactive.

And I think that happens not only in developing a career, but also in asking for promotions, or bonuses, or raises, or stretch assignments, or getting on committees where they’re exposed to people higher up in the organization.

BF: So, when you are asking for a promotion or a salary, what’s the rule of thumb when advocating for yourself? Theoretically, you’ve already had some “fly bys.” How do you kick it up a notch?
First of all, many people do not prepare, or prepare only partially, for their performance reviews. Big mistake! And the way that they can prepare for it is to start collecting what I call a “brag bag,” so they can go in and talk about their successes, things people have said about them, obstacles they’ve overcome, ideas they’ve had, et cetera. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time remembering what I did at the beginning of this week, let alone six months ago. They should cull this list, and write where their areas of development have been, successes, obstacles they’ve overcome, and that’s how you present it.

BF: But, How do you balance bragging and still being a team player?
I will have people say to me, “Wait a minute, Peggy. Where I work, we’re a team. We collaborate on everything — it’s a total group effort. Besides, there’s no ‘I’ in team.”

And I reply, “Yes, but there is a ‘U’ in bonus.”

And, while I love men, very much, I tell my women — I don’t care how old they are, how senior they are — that while men will tout the team cheer I will bet you your salary that when they go in there to talk about their bonus, they’re talking about themselves. They may also be talking about the team as well, but ladies don’t fool yourselves, those men are talking about “I”.

This is the truth behind all the BS that we’ve been told: women are handed these lines: it’s not ladylike, it’s not nice, you won’t have friends, they’ll think you’re ambitious (God forbid), but there are definitely ways to [brag] with warmth and restraint. And if you don’t do it, you will stall or derail your career. And that is the truth.