It's Not Bragging if You Back It Up

If Sunday’s night news taught us nothing else, it was a reminder of how you behave when you have a success is as important as how you behave when you’re failing.

Do you pump your fists, take credit, and smile a lot when things are going really well? Do you act like a beat puppy when no one is taking your advice? Do you take credit for something that isn’t even over the finish line, or do you do the quiet due diligence for years and then wait until you cross the finish line to talk about it.

Everyone is watching. They really are. They’re deciding if you’re the leader you say you are. Or if you an emotionally needy person seeking validation, while the rest of us are working away.


I’ve believed for a long time that good always wins out. Maybe it’s naive to think that smart, contributing people will win out over the attention-seeking folks. I have said, “don’t worry about taking credit; People either know you rocked it, or if you didn’t.” Just like Sunday night showed us. Proof of the result was better than someone talking about it.

But, Sunday’s night news, of course, followed a couple of years of the press and pundits beating up on this guy who wasn’t being seen as “rocking it”.

This happens to us normal humans also. At work, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone taking credit for your work, “ignore them” is not the answer you want. You want to make sure you get credit. After all, who wants to push until the wee hours of some dark and lonely night to create some insightful idea for a project, only to find someone else taking credit for it on the morning conference call? It’s deflating, and de-motivating to work in that context. We will take on more if we know we’ll get credit.

So I’m revising my point of view. Perhaps the message isn’t, be the bigger person.  But I think perhaps the revised approach is: Manage Optics.

A lot of leaders (and everyone one of us is one) operate under the assumption that “my performance speaks for itself” when it comes to managing up or out across their organization. It’s a ridiculously bad assumption to assume your boss is aware of your good work. And if you think your peers and important folks are paying attention, you forget perhaps how many other things they are paying attention to.

So the issue isn’t whether you manage optics, cause you absolutely need to do it. The only issue is how to manage optics. Sunday night’s performance gave us some example of how to do it for us worker bee folks.

  • Brag Using the Right Pronoun. A lot of project or team leads start a project update with “we did this, and we did that”. Even if “we” really do all that, don’t most of us hate them for how they are bragging. Even worse is the ones that start with I, as in “I did this awesome thing, and then I did this wonderful thing that I deserve credit for”. Really? I mean, Really? Is this ever effective? It makes everyone want to hate whoever “I” is. “I”, like “we” sounds self-serving (because it is). Instead, try bragging with the pronoun, “they”. As in, this team (they) did this and then they did that. Even if you’re the head of the team, you’re reporting on behalf of the team.  “They” is better than “We” because it focuses attention in a way that is about the collective, and in a neutral way. It’s you stepping up on the banks of the river, reporting on the movements on the river, than being in the river, yelling out. It’s anchor-like, rather than player-like. The neutrality of the pronoun gives the content more credibility.
  • Provide Meaning. All good teams work hard and meet deadlines. That’s a given. We’re all working hard now a days so hearing about how another team is “trying” or “working” has lost all ability to influence others. You get no credit for it and frankly it comes across as a little immature. But what does matter is the impact to the business. Providing context for why what you’re working on matters. It could sound like this:
  • This is the one market we’ve been chasing for 3 years as a company and this product gives us a foothold we’ve been looking for. (notice how it’s now everyone at the company at the same side of the table).
  • While the market is only $1M today and a drop in the bucket, it’s a market that is growing at 45% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) and could be of signficiant contribution to our bottom line. (Notice how this is not overpromising, but pointing out the potential with a “could be” reason for pursuing it.)
  • We learned 3 things that will let us innovate faster on other projects, namely X, Y, and Z. (Most times, we show up saying we “learned something” as a way of saying “we didn’t achieve a goal” so if you’re going to say you learned something, name the lesson and the transferability to other future things. Codify the insight.)
  • Choose your moment. There are two times to provide updates. (1) When people least expect it, but there’s something important to share. And, (2) after real stuff happens. The way I think about it is this: Most of the time, peacocks don’t spread their wings. They do it sometimes, though and when they do, boy do we notice. Don’t do it often, just do it when it matters. Timing matters. If you are reporting something at the bi-annual status update meetings, you are one amongst many. If you announce 3 key lessons that you think are transferable to other projects in between those bi-annual meetings, that email (and its message) might get a lot more attention. The second, and most meaningful time to send something is when a milestone is met. Achievements are things shipped, prototypes done, etc. Those communications are awesome. Ones about awards being received are really notes that say whether other people like you. Awards follow accomplishments. Accomplishments follow traction. Focus on communicating traction and accomplishment, and let other people (your boss or friend maybe?) send out the email about awards and such.

Underlying all this stuff about credit and managing optics is this one truth: Being good is not enough. You gotta tell others. And being powerful is not a bad thing. After all, a favorite quote that I like is “It’s not bragging if you can back it up” – Muhammad Ali. Or as Kelly Hoey says so well on her blog, we gotta learn to flash our credentials.

Some of you, and I’m speaking to women especially with this comment: some of you see being powerful as something to be avoided because that creates jealousy amongst peers, and sometimes attacks. That’s because the old-school form of power is most often seen as a “power over” someone, or that power is a limited commodity to be fought over. It’s a very Jeffrey Pieffer’s view of power.

Can I share an alternative way of looking at power? Power doesn’t have to be about dominance over others; it can be the capacity to create constructive outcomes. In other words, you can own your power to get shit done. If you think about it that way, you’re more likely to step into it. And trust me, we all need more people owning their power … cause there’s a lot of problems in this world that need solving.

If you notice our Sunday night presidential talk re OBL, Obama talked specifics of what happened, and why it matters. He gave credit to the right people and then he created meaning by honoring those lives that have been lost, and the quiet moments of loss (the missing person at the dinner table). He did not take credit but he did educate us.

We then drew conclusions about leadership. We then decided who got credit. This is a picture perfect lesson for how to manage up and out. You may not be president of the USA, but whatever you are in charge of, there’s a lesson here for you.  Make sure you’re managing the optics of what you’re leading. That lets ideas shine more brightly. Cause ideas and outcomes, they matter.

(I invite you to add a story of how you’ve managed optics, and what works for you in the comments).

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3 Replies

  1. Nilofer -Those of us that are fortunate enough to work in the non-profit or public sectors, we learn very early in our careers the following mantra: “Who cares who gets the credit, as long as “it” gets done!” Now this may seem sophomoric, silly or naive – but from my experience, those who understand this simple idea and can embrace it seem to prosper and continually do good work throughout their entire career. What makes this idea so crazy is that in the private sector, recognition usually comes in form of a bonus or a higher salary. In the non-profit and public sectors you would think that leaders would constantly acknowledge good deeds and give out tons credit – unfortunately, that rarely happens. Leaders, the administration, the party, etc. – they take the credit 9 out of 10 times. Apathy and frustration can quickly take over. One can easily get caught up in the “what about me” mental model. For me – the true acknowledgment of my work comes in seeing my “it” become successful or part of the organizational culture.The only analogy I can offer is a brief scene toward the end of the movie, “Field of Dreams” where the lead character, Ray Kinsella, frustrated from all the crazy work he has put in suddenly becomes frustrated with his payoff, or credit:Ray Kinsella: I did it all, I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask what’s in it for me! Shoeless Joe Jackson: What are you saying, Ray? Ray Kinsella: I’m saying… what’s in it for me? Shoeless Joe Jackson: Is that why you did this? For you? I think you better stay here, Ray.Like Ray I think I will stay, do the good work and hope that my “its” continue to get done!

  2. It is ultimately about get “it” done — well said. There are those who do, and those who talk about doing. Organizations have such a funky way, though, of not recognizing the people really getting stuff done. So what I want is a person to get shit done and be the person who others turn to and regard for getting shit done. Wouldn’t that make it an amazing world?!

  3. What would make it even more amazing is to work with a group of people that truly enjoy getting shit done and really don’t care what the leaders of our organization think. Finding people you trust, who think like you do and that care about quality of the job getting done would be amazing. You don’t even have to be that close, hang out or socialize – however, that simple goal of “being on the same page” can be more satisfying than any public recognition. On the flip-side, getting recognized for stuff that you were only tangentially involve with can be awfully satisfying, too. As long as your colleagues and peers are not pissed-off by the act of recognition and you know that it is total bullshit – that sort of recognition can last a long time and keep you laughing for months.

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