Staying in Tune While Blowing Your Own Horn

UW Marching Band during a game at Camp Randall Stadium. Photo by: Jeff Miller

This time of the year, as the weather warms, flowers start to bloom, and the days grow longer, I find myself seriously contemplating a career change from my current position as a supervisor. At times the feeling is so intense that, while driving home after work, I look longingly at the workers mowing the grass in the parkway median and think, “that wouldn’t be such a bad job. At least you’re outside and get to wear one of those cool, reflective vests.”

No, it’s not “spring fever” or a midlife crisis (at least not yet). Spring at my workplace is the time when we hold our annual performance appraisals. As a supervisor this becomes doubly challenging. We not only prepare for our own performance evaluation but also review the inputs from all those in our organizations and prepare their performance evaluations. The added workload and stress at this time of year is the main reason for questioning my career choice. And one of the aspects of performance evaluation time that really makes me reconsider what I want to be when I grow up is knowing the range of detail that I’ll get in the accomplishment write-ups from the members of my organization. Many are very good at detailing all the relevant work they’ve done and highlighting their achievements. I know, however, that there will be those who will sum up a year of stellar work on complicated tasks with something akin to, “Worked on XYZ project.” That’s it. As you can imagine, this makes it much more difficult to accurately assess performance. For as much as I pride myself in keeping up with the work going on in my organization, no supervisor knows all the details. We rely on individuals to “blow their own horns” to give the full picture of their accomplishments.

But “blowing your own horn” can be challenging from some. There are many people who are uncomfortable putting themselves in the spotlight, either due to their personality or cultural upbringing. Workplaces and society also send mixed signals on the subject. Teamwork is emphasized in many of our careers. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’” we’re told and “no one likes a braggart.” And yet we know that for our personal career advancement we need to be able to tell the story of our personal successes.

So how do we reconcile a reluctance for self promotion with the need to make sure that we get appropriate credit for accomplishments? In Peggy Klaus’s book, “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It,” she points out several “myths” many of us hold about “bragging.” They illustrate how we may unnecessarily talk ourselves out of speaking up about our achievements. Here are a few of my favorite myths that she highlights:

  • A Job Well Done Speaks for Itself
    Maybe, but probably in incomplete sentences. While people may notice the results of your work, they probably don’t recognize all the effort that you put into it. Only you can tell the whole story.
  • Humility Gets You Noticed
    By whom? People may notice your humility, but is that all you want or need people to see?
  • I Don’t Have to Brag; People Will Do it for Me.
    Maybe your mom (especially if you’re a doctor), but that’s probably the only person you can count on for that. You’ll certainly have individuals who will advocate for you in your career but, once again, they can’t tell your story as well as you can.
  • Good Girls Don’t Brag
    …and may not get the recognition they deserve! There are societal and cultural expectations on women that can make self-promotion seem distasteful or inappropriate. In her book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sheryl Sandberg does a good job of highlighting this and some of the internal and external barriers women (and many others) face in their career growth.
  • Brag is a Four Letter Word
    Well, it IS a four letter word, but not on obscene one! It’s what you say and how you say it that matters.

If we can let go of our reluctance to speak out about our accomplishments, the next step is to figure out how to effectively convey those achievements. What do we need to do and be thinking about as we prepare for a performance review? What information should we convey? How do we do it in a way that doesn’t take us past a healthy “blowing our own horn” to a point where we may seem arrogant?

In the course of my career I’ve sat on both sides of the performance evaluation desk (and both seats can be equally uncomfortable!). Based on my experiences as both employee and supervisor, I’ve come up with seven points to consider as you prepare to record your accomplishments for posterity. These are things that I feel have helped me in my own performance reviews and have made it easier for me to conduct performance reviews for my employees:

  1. Think about your accomplishments all year long, not just at performance evaluation time.
    Odds are, if you wait 11 months to start thinking about what you’ve accomplished over the last year, you’re going to forget things, and not just minor details. I ask the folks in my organization to send me a brief summary of their activities every two weeks. This is a completely voluntary report but it serves two purposes: One, it keeps me (their supervisor) up to date on what they’re doing and potential areas where I can help them. Two, it creates a semi-formal opportunity for them to jot down those accomplishments so that they have a written log of their work and don’t have to try and remember everything right before a performance appraisal!
  2. Show how your accomplishments relate to the tasks show on your performance plan or those expected of you in your job.
    First and foremost, you should be evaluated on the job you and your supervisor agreed you were going to do. If you did great at some secondary task, but neglected your primary one, you probably won’t be happy with your evaluation. Once you’ve shown that you did what was asked of you, then you can talk about the extras!
  3. Point out where you exceeded expectations.
    Do more than just indicate that you completed a task. Mention the challenges you overcame or the positive responses you received for your work. How did you go beyond what was just asked for to give what was really needed?
  4. Take credit for your personal contributions to a team
    A lot of our work (if not most) is done in team settings. While that means you can share credit for the overall success of the team, be sure to highlight specifically how your work contributed to that success. Conversely, be careful not to seem like you’re taking credit for work that was actually done by other team members.
  5. Don’t forget accomplishments that may be outside the scope of what’s written in your performance plan or job description.
    There are many opportunities in your workplace for you to grow and not all of them are just in your area of technical expertise. Don’t forget to mention that committee you volunteered on or the outreach program you helped with. Those experiences beyond the walls of your cubicle can demonstrate capabilities and skills you possess that may result in new opportunities that neither you nor your supervisor may have considered.
  6. Be complete, but not overly detailed
    You want to paint a complete picture of your accomplishments, but too much detail can make it hard for your supervisor to pick out the highlights from the background noise. Be sure to stay focused on the key accomplishments you want to bring forward.
  7. Use your accomplishments as a springboard for future opportunities
    Your performance review is also an opportunity to discuss the next steps in your career. What aspects of your work did you really enjoy the past year and want to further explore? Where were there challenges that you want to address with training opportunities? What opportunities do your supervisor and the colleagues you’ve worked with feel you should consider pursuing. Remember that your end of year review is also the start of a new performance year. The circle of life!

It can be uncomfortable for many of us to place ourselves in the spotlight and “brag” about our accomplishments. However, in order to move forward in our careers it’s necessary that we become effective at being our own advocates. Blowing our own horns, in a “tuneful” way, is part of that advocacy and a skill that all of us need to master. So polish up that brass and get ready for your solo. I know it’ll sound great!

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