How to overcome the prejudices you hold that can block your career (opinion)
Many academics, other than perhaps business professors, regard “marketing” as a decidedly unpleasant word. And the “personal brand”? Doubly. I have had many conversations with faculty members in which they carefully avoid such phrases. Yet, intriguingly, such discussions often led these faculty members to implement these same concepts, approaches, and processes.
You may be one of those faculty members who equates promoting their own work or building a personal brand with a crude quest for recognition. It raises the uncomfortable notion that you’re acting like some sort of college used-car salesman, peddling your expertise in a way that inevitably diminishes its value and your credibility.
How about expanding your circle? Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist, studied the phenomenon with a few colleagues at Harvard Business School and found a correlation between professionals feeling ashamed and even “dirty” after networking, especially if they came from a place of low power. (Those who think they can provide reciprocal value generally feel better about the experience.)
I agree that it would be wonderful if our accomplishments and merits were recognized effortlessly. If only other people would take the time to notice and reflect on all that we contribute. As naive as it sounds, many of us still rely on this to be the case, women perhaps in particular. Yet the fact is that research shows otherwise.
Moreover, this is not an exclusion scenario. Each of us already has a brand, whether we choose to make it intentionally or not. And while the architecture of our own reputation doesn’t matter—because we have higher, loftier goals—enhancing our professional impact does.
Here’s the thing: in order for your work to reach a wider audience, you need to talk about it. Unless the media regularly pops up in your inbox for quotes and interviews, people beyond your immediate sphere of influence are likely largely unaware of what you do. And from a career perspective, it can impact everything from possible collaborations to opportunities for mentorship and advancement.
Your desire to shy away from promoting your work might be rooted in two common biases. First, the status quo bias leads people to prefer stasis, even though a change would be beneficial. It’s logic. After all, it is much easier and arguably much more comfortable to continue working as you have without making major changes to your routine, changes that would require additional time or effort, or that might be outside your area of expertise.
Discouraging questions may also come to mind. “What will the others think?” and “What if my colleagues talked about me behind my back?” are two common objections. Interestingly, both concerns can be attributed to the spotlight effect, whereby we tend to overestimate how much others think of us. (Have you ever walked into a room and felt like everyone was watching you, even when you weren’t behind a desk? That’s what I’m talking about.)
Both biases can seem quite common and benign. But they can hold you back in different ways. Let’s look at them in context.
Associate Professor Young is looking to launch a research effort around online media consumption. He will not only have to persuade his department to provide him with funding and other forms of support, but he will also seek to partner with faculty members outside his institution. Asking them to do so requires social capital, which he may have built over time through thought leadership (presenting at conferences, publishing research) and building relationships with others in its field. But if he’s avoided discussing his work with others, making those connections overnight won’t be easy.
Or take Assistant Professor Sanchez. Now in her first college role, she wishes she had a mentor who could help her navigate the culture and politics of her new campus. Getting used to teaching was an unexpected challenge. She’s well aware that this is just the first act of a lifelong career, but she also understands that she could start shaping her path now… if only she knew where to start. She’s unsure about actively seeking support in public, which makes her feel a little too vulnerable.
Then there’s Dean Jacobsen, who knows his university’s provost position will likely be released within the next 12 to 24 months. She has spent two decades at her establishment and looks forward to serving in this new capacity. Perhaps she has actively supported new initiatives and increased her unit’s influence on campus and in the wider community since day one. But if she has instead chosen to avoid rocking the boat instead of making timely or much-needed changes, her track record may not reflect the vision that university management has for who will best fill this role. She suddenly operates on a condensed timeline to make impressive moves.
The status quo and biases of the spotlight provide a veneer of safety. Yet each comes with high costs: wasted time, lost credibility, lost relationships and wasted opportunities. Of course, power differences and other factors may be at play, but personal biases are an area where you can exercise immediate control.
How can you overcome them? To overcome the bias of the status quo, we must act. Here is a brief framework to get you started.
Consider the desired result. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to share? Also ask,
- Is this part of a longer term strategy? “I need to position myself for meaningful advancement.”
- Is it to teach others, gain knowledge, or expand access to an idea? “Gathering more information would be extremely helpful for the book I’m co-authoring.”
- Is it to stay relevant? “I know this topic is especially important for the incoming student cohort.”
- Is it to get out of a professional silo? “I want others to be aware of the work I do.”
- Is it to have a wider impact? “This effort is still not reaching the people who need to know about it.”
None of these actions should make you cringe.
Think about your contributions. Then there is the question of what we should share. Publishing peer-reviewed research is a major accomplishment, but so is launching an e-learning podcast or creating a solid internal medicine blog. Recognition of your hard work is always appreciated. But more importantly, you would like it to resonate with other academics in the field. You went ahead and built it, but they still haven’t come. Where are these people?
To reduce the spotlight effect, remember that:
- People are far more obsessed and preoccupied with their own lives than they are with you.
- Social media feeds and news cycles are changing rapidly. What you are feeling is highlighted by a bat signal that does not invariably float in other people’s field of vision for more than a few seconds or minutes.
Choose a platform where others are actively sharing. It’s a lot less intimidating when you’re not the only one holding the mic. According to Leslie K. Moon of Harvard Business School, “Research indicates that in situations where others are also sharing, people can successfully convey their accomplishments without coming across as unsympathetic, selfish, or inconsiderate.”
Are others adding their views on LinkedIn? Could this topic merit a presentation or a webinar? What about adding comments in the forums? The specific medium you choose depends on the time available and the effort you need to put in, but know that it doesn’t have to be cumbersome. (Creating a social media post will likely be easier than writing a conference proposal.)
Consider the price of inaction. It’s hard to calculate precisely what is lost when you don’t publicly share your accomplishments or engage others in a dialogue about your work. The results of combined efforts can easily be seen among faculty members who have become household names, but there are plenty of tangible benefits that could align with your personal goals, even if you don’t want to achieve academic status. academic influencer or anything like it.
The bottom line: you can promote your work and come across as authentic and not self-aggrandizing. During the process, you can learn more about your field, make meaningful connections, and help others by contributing your ideas.