The Art of the Subtle Brag

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On a morning run, a friend mentioned an upcoming office visit from one of the higher ups at his large oil-and-gas employer. I said something about a great networking opportunity. He said, "I'd much rather these guys just notice all the hard work I do."

I mentor a University of Houston MBA student. He's an engineer for a large, multinational corporation. Without a specific project need, he’s uncomfortable talking to senior staff. Quietly, from the safety of his desk, he hopes managers notice that he hits all targets and finishes projects ahead of deadlines.

It doesn't work that way.

My company is minuscule next to these huge corporations. Yet even I can't notice all the amazing things my team does. Like them, I have my own deadlines and projects and tasks that consume large swaths of my focus.

I see some things, yet quite a lot I don't know about until someone tells me. And as human nature assumes the positive is a given, I predominantly hear from the frustrated employee or the client with an issue.

You need senior staff to know about your accomplishments for promotions, choice assignments, special projects, lateral moves, and even new opportunities outside the organization—including references. For managers to know your successes, you need to subtly brag.

Bragging has a bad rep. Most people associate it with bad manners—and for some bragging, they're not wrong. Yet there are polite ways to brag.

Find opportunities.

The best subtle bragging is done in passing, when the senior staffer seems to have a few minutes or isn't working on anything too critical—not when she’s in a meeting with a set agenda and target outcomes or when she's rushing out the door.

I had an employee who occasionally popped in toward the end of the day when I mostly do administrative tasks. (Very observant of him.) He'd sit down, give me a couple highlights from his recent work and an idea or two, and then mosey on. Rock star.

Don't feel discouraged if the person you thought had a few minutes actually doesn't. Bring it back another time. For the moment, just say, "No problem! Nothing urgent. I'll catch you later."

Make it natural.

Find a way to mention something you achieved in a conversational manner:

  • "Long night last night! I stayed late to get that project completed ahead of time. But the client was so thrilled that it made the extra effort worthwhile. Might want to give them a call—they'll be in a great mood for a follow-up."

  • "Good news! I had an idea for increasing efficiency at the ABC plant; we tried it out last month and the results came in today. Success! We decreased fulfillment time by 15 percent. Just thought you'd want to know."

  • "Wanted to get your take on something. [Conundrum] came up, and I thought [great idea] might solve it and really help with [ancillary problem]. What do you think?"

Use restraint.

Rather than waiting until you have ten things to mention, regularly pop in with one or two highlights. You don't need to subtly brag to the same person every day, but you shouldn't wait a month between drop-ins, either.

Attitude is everything.

Most managers love to hear from teammembers. You aren't bothering them by striking up conversation. It's odd for people to avoid you because you're "management."

Yet if you approach anyone breathlessly in a jangle of nerves, your anxiety will make him uncomfortable. Moods are infectious.

Make gentle forays into conversation—a weather comment in the passageway or a quick handshake and introduction if you've never met—and only attempt a more in-depth conversation when your comfort level increases.