Ed Jackson could write a handbook on self-promotion based on his observations over his career. It would include small tactics, such as taking copious notes during management meetings to appear diligent.“Make sure you use a pencil so the scribble is more audible,” says the marketing consultant. And it would include larger tactical maneuvers, such as moving on to another job or project before a failure surfaces. “Isn’t that exactly what politicians do?” he asks.
Most of his advice for getting ahead would involve actions in public forums: meetings, emails and teleconferences. Copy the boss liberally, for example, and email only late in the evening to suggest you haven’t left work yet, he says. During meetings, ask questions after your boss’s presentation that reinforce the stated position, such as “Wouldn’t you agree that…?” And always pose questions at the end of a colleague’s argument that suggest he’s somewhat daft: “You’re saying what exactly?”
At least in presidential campaigns, there are primaries, polls and pundits that soon silence the grandstanding of all but one. No such luck in the workplace. When colleagues stump for higher office, every meeting is their Town Hall, every email is a debate and every teleconference is an opportunity for attack ads. What's worse, you can’t change the channel and there’s no little red light bulb to signify someone’s time is up. (Hey, there’s an idea.)
“There’s a vehicle to shut them up in politics,” says Mark Aldrich, a professor, “but in many situations, there isn’t an up or down vote in the office. They can be around for a very long time politicking.”
Self-promoters are the genus that includes subspecies like workplace saboteurs, authority posers and squeaky wheels. But by virtue of being public, such glory-casting also involves the theft of time from others. These horn-tooters give conference calls, email threads and meetings a bad name, even though meetings don’t torment people, gasbags do.
Some of the office-campaign tactics Aldrich has witnessed: Wrap a self-serving argument in the flag of the highest moral principle, such as something good for the business. Or play the ventriloquist’s dummy by touting the boss’s agenda at a meeting even before the boss does. The manager will invariably say, “What a great idea,” says Aldrich. “It’s the Punch and Judy Show.”
Another tactic: Speak first, and often, in meetings, says Greg Milano, a sales and marketing veteran of 22 years, and act like the boss you aren’t—yet. One colleague he remembers would often distribute minutes of meetings that weren’t his, make the first toasts at parties he didn’t host and grill people with questions only he felt he was entitled to ask. “It became such an annoyance that people started to refer to that behavior by his name,” says Milano.
Another common tactic insurance executive Ken Stewart has observed is to go on the attack. “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the water,” he says. Stewart went so far as to transfer out of one dysfunctional department because meetings proved to be a crowded field of contenders variously undermining each other and swooning at the sound of their own voices.
Scott Stafford, a former legislative assistant, had a colleague who engaged in dirty tricks. He would steal informational faxes, memos and mail in an attempt to demonstrate publicly his mastery of everyone else’s issues. “There’s probably a plus for the campaign that goes negative,” says Stafford. “It works.”
One of Dick Nicholson’s former co-workers, angling for a prestigious post, got the promotion after a campaign swing through the company vice president’s church, which he began attending regularly. In various meetings, including conference calls, he’d sit shaking his head at his opponents’ comments. “Those are the kids when we were in elementary school we wanted to beat up,” says Nicholson.
Grandstanders typically secure managerial approval in inverse proportion to colleagues’ admiration. Sour grapes aside, colleagues tend to loathe the very person the boss likes, and usually for the same reason: modesty deficit.
Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University, explains that two of the main dimensions on which people are judged are likeability and competence. Modesty about workplace abilities works only when the audience already knows someone’s credentials, which co-workers likely do. But modesty can backfire with anyone—especially the boss—who doesn’t know. “If the audience doesn’t know your level of credentials and you under-represent them, they believe you,” he says.
On the other hand, Cialdini’s research shows that self-aggrandizers bug colleagues more than superiors because likeability may make you popular, but it isn’t the main criterion of management. “The manager is looking for evidence of competence,” he says.
Susan Credle, an advertising executive, sees something commendable about artful self-promoters. “If they do it in a smart way, then I’m really impressed,” she says. Still, she concedes, just as in politics, such campaigns “unfortunately can get you high up enough to be at a level where you can bother a lot of people.”