Business Politics Technology

Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?

A couple of days ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on his blog called A Rant About Women which took as its subject the comparative comfort with which some men are prepared to market themselves, mislead and lie to get ahead compared to women.

I’ve been reading responses to this piece on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’ve become increasingly horrified by what I’ve seen. Generally, it’s being viewed as a call to arms to create a new breed of women who are as self-important, self-promoting, shameless and arrogant as some of the worst (and most celebrated) men in the industry. This attitude is being viewed as the ‘way to get ahead’ for any individual wanting to make their mark in the world.

I’m prepared to accept that there’s a correlation between attitudes to competition and self-promotion and gender. I’m not as prepared to take it as far as Clay seems to, but I’ll go along with its generalised existence.

And clearly, if aggressive self-promotion and pompous self-aggrandizement is what gets people ahead in the world, then at the individual level, it’s better to perform in that kind of way than it is to sit passively and watch yourself get passed over by more clumsy, venal, smug, aggressive, macho idiots.

But at the level of the company, at the level of the community, at the level of the industry – are these attributes in fact in any way desirable? Does self-promotion really lead to great products or projects? Is the ability to lie and mislead really what it takes to achieve?

My experience has been that there’s definitely a role for the arrogant and the pushy in the creation and promotion of a project. It’s also taught me that this skill is a small part of the set of skills necessary to produce something great.

The kinds of things that result in great products are tangible skills, a desire and a pleasure in collaborative building, an aspiration and sense that you’re making something important, a sense of teamwork, room to experiment, the ability to bring out the best in the people around you, a good work ethic.

Alongside that a desire to show-off can be really beneficial, a confidence in your ability is essential, the ability to push yourself into new areas certainly a benefit. But these attributes can also get in the way. There’s something in American culture in particular which values the pushy and the determined, but we’ve all worked with people whose confidence massively outstrips their abilities, who cannot work together with other people because they think they’re superior to everyone else.

And we’ve also met a whole bunch of people in the industry who do nothing but self-promote, working day and night to sell themselves, and achieve positions massively disproportionate to their tangible abilities. There are people in our industry in positions of substantial power whose reputation is built upon the way in which they present themselves as being visionaries and experts. Some of them have found that it’s simply more efficient for them to spend their days building that reputation through PR and self-promotion than it is to demonstrate it through the things that they make, the value that they create.

I’d never argue that we should forcefully reject anyone who manifests confidence, skills in self-promotion or who is cocky enough to sell themselves. But what I want to strongly resist is the idea that it is these attributes that we should be promoting – either in women or in men.

It should be unacceptable for us to say that lying about one’s abilities is something that everyone has to do to get ahead. It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.

Instead we should be demonstrating that great projects, like the ones Apple produces, are at least in part based upon trying to produce the best thing possible, feeling the integrity in the product you’re making. Trying to do something good. We should acknowledge the example of Flickr who created an astonishing culture of extremely talented engineers and designers around the very real aspiration to make something beautiful, powerful and good for the world. Or the guys at Twitter who discovered their idea initially by letting small groups experiment in interesting directions rather than dogmatically following the vision of a bold cocksure individual.

Good projects come from good people, good vision, good execution, good collaboration, good insight. And it’s these traits – and the ability to spot them – that we should be encouraging in our colleagues.

The right thing to do is to get it into the heads of our VCs and companies that a hunger to win at any cost is not the main attribute of a creative or productive person. That the ability to be intelligent, think through problems, work with other people, develop ideas effectively – that all of these traits are better indicators of success than how big they tell you their testicles are! That the person who comes to you with the biggest pitch is not necessarily the person you should be listening to.

And while encouraging people to spot the talented and the creative, we should also be considering how we shame those people who self-promote without creating. The financial collapse has taught us that rhetorical bubbles divorced from reality are a danger to us all. We’re already approaching this point – our industry has become venal, insular and dominated by marketing. We have come to value the wrong things. And if we want a continued vigorous, creative, free, open and equal environment, that’s something we have to fix. It’s not something to aspire to.

14 replies on “Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?”

I’ve met some aggressive self-promoting women, one who declares herself to be the “queen of twitter” (a title passed around like the paper crowns at a Burger King birthday party), and I will say they are more annoying than they are effective. An excellent way to get unfollowed.

This is a helpful addition to the conversation. In terms of team-based product development, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
I think what Clay’s getting at is simply: willingness to take calculated risks. His example of saying, “my drafting’s fine” in order to insure a place in a class is a good example. It’s an obnoxiously macho thing to take badly calculated risks (e.g the financial crisis was not in any significant way caused by women, I bet), but it’s often a productive means to an end.

Taking calculated risks is not all he’s talking about. If all he were saying was “women should act like more like men in the sense that men, historically, are more willing to take calculated risks,” that would be one thing. But he explicitly said men are more likely to risk going to jail, and that’s what women should emulate. I don’t think he’s talking about reporters risking jail rather than reveal their sources, either. Even the example he gives is not in this category. “My drafting is fine” is a perfectly reasonable response if what you’re thinking is “OK, I’ve been honest about my drawing, but I care about this enough to do the work to make my drafting acceptable.” That, certainly, is something women are often “too honest” (or sometimes frankly self-defeating) to do and need to do a better job of following through with.
In short, I have no problem with women “acting more like men” in the sense of reducing the level to which they roll over in the face of confrontation or fail to pursue opportunities. But if acting more like men means being a lying douchebag, I’ll pass.
Anyway, illustrates what happens when women try the douchebag route: they get dismissed as annoying. I’m sure posing in trenchcoats and bare legs for the America’s Tweethearts article didn’t help the general population of women on Twitter, either.

Thank you for a great post Tom. We don’t want a call to arms to create a new breed of women – or push to develop these more male characteristics in the workplace. There is evidence that it is these characteristics, and the perceived pressure to display more self-aggrandizement, large amounts of confidence, and general macho-ness that continues to drive some women out of the workplace (of course it’s not the only reason; but it’s a well documented one). We might notice that the figures of women in computer technology are getting worse not better. So a call to arms, might just make the already worrying stats and every-day experiences of our fairly un-diverse workforces worse. Instead we should nurture behaviors that lead to business success in the workplace, and at this point in time positively discriminate for that are typically more female. Studies have shown that businesses are more successful when they do that. jennylg

As somebody who bumbles from one tech startup to another, I tend to find that all too often self-promoters end up in positions of power. They naturally hold their cards close to their chests, making themselves into bottlenecks for certain kinds of decisions; perhaps not even consciously. And then they use that power to influence the direction of the company, then take credit for any success…
They often elect themselves to speak on behalf of the team; and people who are more keen to get on and do work, who are not comfortable standing up in front of an audience, happily let them do that. But they then go and claim the credit for everything, misrepresent what the company actually does (because they don’t actually really understand it), then come back and tell the team that they now have to make whatever misrepresentation they came up with into reality – thereby gaining even more influence over the course of the company. By sucking up to the non-technical stakeholders in the company, they often get themselves placed into legitimate positions of responsibility such as directorships, too.
Gets right on my tits, it does! 🙂

I keep telling myself that Clay didn’t actually mean we should encourage lying in order to “play the game” and get the job/promotion, etc. But, that’s how it reads.
I completely agree with those who recommend the small but crucial shift from, “No, I don’t know how to do that.” to “I don’t know how to do that… YET”. How can encouraging blatant dishonesty ever lead to something useful?
As for self-promotion, I have quite a problem with women (or others) who say, “I need to learn to quit being uncomfortable with self-promotion.” Being afraid to try something is one thing, but if something doesn’t quite feel right, I think we should listen to that. My opinion (wild-ass, only partially grounded) is that we’re often uncomfortable with self-promotion because we know–instinctively (think: blink)–that there’s something fundamentally wrong with it. I don’t mean morally objectionable, I mean… just plain doesn’t work.
Sure we can all point to those who self-promote and therefore “get” things others don’t, but at the same time — we can point to people who did NOT shamelessly self-promote and yet the results of their work are both known and respected.
I think a big distinction is in the difference between self-promotion and promotion. Whenever someone says, “I need to improve at self-promotion.” I always ask, “Why?” The answer nearly always involves, “So people will know about my work”. In that case, I’d suggest two things:
1) Don’t promote your self, promote the work.
or, even better (but a bigger stretch for some)
2) Don’t promote yourself, OR your work, but promote the results others will get from that work.
We are nearly ALL outstanding at “promoting” things for which we have a passion. Things we love, things we hate. Hobbies we wish others understood. Products we believe have changed the world, or at least our own lives. Our favorite books and films. A YouTube video that made us spit coffee out our nose.
If it’s easy to talk about THOSE things and hard to talk about ourselves in this way, then… don’t do it. Find something ELSE to talk about that feels comfortable and achieves the result. For example, rather than promote yourself — promote your clients. Showcase what they did. Oh, and sure, you played a role.
Promote the end-result your customers will get. Promote the awesomeness of what THEY will do as a result.
In the end, it’s always the user’s awesomeness that matters anyway. No matter how much we tell others “My work is awesome” or “I’m awesome”, we have an uphill battle to convince their brain, regardless of how confidently we say it or how deeply we believe it. My brain–and yours–and everyone else’s cares a hell of a lot more about making ME awesome than how fabulous YOU–or your work–are. So, if you don’t want to talk about you… that’s a GOOD thing. Talk about *me* and it’ll have a much greater impact. 😉
— Kathy Sierra

And while encouraging people to spot the talented and the creative, we should also be considering how we shame those people who self-promote without creating.

Yes, those who are found to be bigheads and charlatans should be outed as such, but a more positive approach would be to encourage people who are talented and creative to be better at getting their message over.
This is isn’t a case of telling people to start shouting ‘Shut up and look at me, I’m an awesome thought leader’ but having confidence in their own work, showing their work and explaining why it’s good. Show and tell, not just tell. Convincing arguments and demonstrations of skill, not just hyperbole. As a shy person myself, I know this is far easier said than done, but it’s a vital skill.

@Richard — I’d recommend a step beyond “Show and Tell, not just Tell” Try to drop the “tell” completely. Convincing arguments and explanations work only when the other person is already close to convinced and just wants rational justification as back-up (for themselves or to convince others).
It’s the demonstrations, examples, and obviousness that matters (in my opinion). To me (as a rather extreme introvert in real life), what matters most is providing a context where the other person can make the decision for themselves. That might require helping to teach them something. Where we often go wrong is in trying to teach them, “Here’s what you need to understand about how I’m awesome” rather than, “Here’s something you might really love to know…” and let them figure out how/where you fit in for themselves.

This is a great post. I would add that there is a huge amount of cultural baggage here – I know of a quiet, extremely talented Japanese researcher who moved from Cambridge in the UK to the USA, and it took him months to realise that no-one in his new job would recognise his talent until he began to be much louder about his abilities. Quiet brilliance was utterly invisible within his new setting.
Similarly, while I’m sure that the tradition of male overconfidence/female diffidence applies to the UK just as much to the USA, American women in Britain tend to be perceived as much louder/more confident/more aggressive than Brit counterparts.
We need difference, and we need processes that don’t simply rub those differences out through the sheer force of aggressive dominant working cultures.

I would add that there is a huge amount of cultural baggage here – I know of a quiet, extremely talented Japanese researcher who moved from Cambridge in the UK to the USA, and it took him months to realise that no-one in his new job would recognise his talent until he began to be much louder about his abilities. Quiet brilliance was utterly invisible within his new setting.

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