Pros and cons of the humble brag

by Sep 15, 2020

We’ve all done it right….. the humble brag?

We all think the humble brag is a good way of sharing our achievements without looking arrogant, but it may not necessarily always work in our favour.

Humble brag is defined as:
noun: humble brag
an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud.

In an era when hard sales pitching is now unwelcome pretty much everywhere, it has been replaced by the humble brag. We all think the humble brag is a good way of sharing our achievements without looking arrogant. But research shows that it may not necessarily always work in our favour as we think.

But despite this, the technique is so ubiquitous that there are hashtags and Twitter accounts covering it. I see multiples in my various feeds every day. I’ve even done some of it myself. Yep.. guilty as charged!

  • Humility based humble brag: I can hardly believe my eyes. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this but I have hit (insert a number sometimes impressive sometimes less so) followers on LinkedIn / Instagram / other ” 
  • Complaint based humbled brag “Another day, another airport, another keynote to a packed room, with jet lag….. sheesh …but someone has to do it”.


humble brag

Psychology behind the humble brag

So, what is it about the humble brag that can put people off?  People have a right surely to share their good news and isn’t this better than outright boasting? You would have thought so, but seemingly it is a double edged sword.

Humble bragging is described in a Harvard Business School research paper as a  “A Distinct – and Ineffective – Self-Presentation Strategy”  by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton. It’s clear that we all think it’s a great way of telling the world that we are not total losers and we’re racking up some achievements somewhere. We think at some subliminal level that this makes us more likeable and approachable and will lead to greater respect.  We think that outright bragging “I’m a great public speaker,”  will be a major turn off for most (it actually is) and that humble bragging is the best route to showcase our abilities. But clearly this is not always the case.

The Harvard Business School paper suggests “Interestingly, complaint-based humble-bragging (despite being the most common type of humble bragging) is even less effective than humility based humble bragging, simply bragging or even simply complaining ….” 

They recommend that those who choose to humble brag in a strategic effort to elicit both liking and respect, should assesses the effectiveness of that choice. The study shows that sincerity is a key ingredient to success, something that is endorsed in a study by Ferris & Perrewé as one of the key political skills needed for career success. Humble bragging is more likely to be effective if the bragger is already liked and respected and less likely to be successful if the person is perceived as being insincere and disingenuous. That can make us unsure if we can trust them.

Humble brag and the workplace

The recruitment process is filled with opportunities to humble brag from the CV to the interview. I always advise sticking to the facts. I use the “Be FABulous” method of Facts, Achievements and Benefits, backed up by some good metrics. This can be helpful for introverts who struggle to self promote. Stick with the truth, using powerful language and focus on the impact you make, plus the results. There is no need for anyone to say “I am  a great public speaker.” Stick to the facts, maybe about “giving 12 key notes to audiences of 3000+ composed senior industrialists and political leaders focusing on the impact of ..”  It’s evident that you wouldn’t be invited back if you were terrible.

Another time that the humble brag comes in is in response to interview questions such as the dreadful “what’s your biggest weakness.”  Answers such as “My 150% commitment to my job can be intimidating to my co-workers” are cringe worthy. Remember the bell jar image that every good quality has a tipping point, when it can become a negative characteristic in excess. We have all seen the extravert who becomes over bearing or the detail focused person who micro-manages.

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Self-promotion without humble bragging.

 To be effective at self-promotion of any kind, it’s necessary to have a high level of self-awareness and empathy and above all to understand your audience.

    • Express gratitude“Thank you. I’m honoured and privileged to….
    • Empathise with your audience: You are not going to brag about your great professional achievements, at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs.“50000 job seekers signed up for my new programme!”  Parenthesis “aren’t I great?”
    • Show your proven accomplishments: this means building up a track record of achievement so everyone knows you are more than the person of the moment. You can showcase these on LinkedIn on the Features section or within your profile. If others endorse your achievements with recommendations or testimonials so much the better. Having a LinkedIn connection write a recommendation is very effective.
    • Be genuinely humble. Share what you learned and the work involved: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” said Thomas Jefferson and he was right. If there was a growth moment in an experience let that come to the fore.

The Harvard study concludes with: “The proliferation of humble bragging in social media, the workplace, and everyday life suggests that people believe it to be an effective self-promotion strategy. Yet we show that people readily denigrate humble braggers. Faced with the choice to (honestly brag or (deceptively) humble brag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former— and at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere.”

It’s about how you brag. Something to think about. I certainly will.


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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