Many academics, other than perhaps business faculty, consider “marketing” to be a decidedly distasteful word. And “personal branding”? Doubly so. I have had many conversations with faculty members in which they carefully sidestep such phrases. Yet, curiously, such discussions have often resulted in those faculty members implementing those very same concepts, approaches and processes.
You may be one of those faculty members who equates promoting your own work or building a personal brand as a crass pursuit of recognition. It brings up the uncomfortable notion that you’re acting like some sort of used-car salesperson of academe, hocking your expertise in a way that inevitably diminishes its value—and your credibility.
And what about growing your circle? Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist, studied the phenomenon with a couple of 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 feel they can contribute reciprocal value generally feel better about the experience.)
I agree that it would be wonderful if our accomplishments and merits were recognized without effort. If only other people took the time to notice and reflect upon all that we contribute. As naïve as that may sound, many of us still rely on this to be the case—women perhaps especially. Yet the fact is that research shows the opposite.
Plus, this isn’t an opt-out scenario. Each of us already has a brand, whether we choose to intentionally craft it or not. And even if architecting our own reputations isn’t of interest—because we have loftier, nobler goals—boosting our professional impact counts.
Here’s the thing: for your work to reach a broader audience, you have to talk about it. Unless media outlets are regularly popping into your inbox for quotes and interviews, people beyond your immediate sphere of influence are probably largely unaware of what you do. And from a career perspective, that can impact everything from possible collaborations to mentoring and advancement opportunities.
Your desire to lean away from promoting your work could be rooted in two common biases. First, the status quo bias leads people to prefer stasis, even if change would be beneficial. This makes sense. After all, it’s far easier and arguably much more comfortable to continue working as you have been without instituting any major changes to your routine—changes that would require additional time or effort, or perhaps be outside your realm of expertise.
Discouraging questions may also come to mind. “What will others think?” and “What if my colleagues talk about me behind my back?” are two common objections. Interestingly, both concerns can be traced to the spotlight effect, whereby we tend to overestimate how much others are thinking of us. (Ever walk into a room and feel that everyone was looking at you, even when you weren’t behind a lectern? That’s what I’m talking about.)
Both biases may seem fairly common and benign. But they may be holding you back in different ways. Let’s consider them in context.
Associate Professor Young is looking to launch a research effort around online media consumption. He will not only need to persuade his department to give him funding and other support, but he also seeks 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 relationship-building with others in his field. But if he has avoided discussing his work with others, creating those connections overnight isn’t going to be easy.
Or take Assistant Professor Sanchez. Now in her first academic role, she wishes she had a mentor who could help her navigate her new campus’s culture and politics. Acclimating to teaching has been an unexpected challenge. She’s well aware that this is only 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 begin. She’s not sure about actively seeking support in public, which makes her feel a little too vulnerable.
Then there’s Dean Jacobsen, who knows that her university’s provost role will probably be vacated within the next 12 to 24 months. She has spent two decades at her institution and is eager to serve in that new capacity. Perhaps she has been actively supporting new initiatives and growing her unit’s influence across campus and in the broader community since day one. But if she’s instead opted to avoid rocking the boat in lieu of making timely or much-needed changes, her track record may not mirror the vision university leadership has for who will best fit this role. She’s suddenly operating on a condensed timeline to make some impressive moves.
The status quo and spotlight biases provide a veneer of safety. Yet each carries steep costs: wasted time, lost credibility, uncultivated relationships and squandered opportunities. Sure, power differentials and other factors can be at play, but personal biases are an area in which you can exert immediate control.
How can you overcome them? Moving past the status quo bias requires action. Here is a brief framework to get you started.
Consider the desired outcome. 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 insights or broaden access to an idea? “Gathering more input would be extremely helpful for the book I’m co-authoring.”
- Is it to remain relevant? “I know this topic in particular matters to the incoming student cohort.”
- Is it to bust out of a professional silo? “I want others to be aware of the work that I do.”
- Is it to have a broader impact? “This effort still isn’t reaching the people who need to know about it.”
None of those actions should be cringe-inducing.
Think about your contributions. Then there’s the question of what we should share. Publishing peer-reviewed research is a major accomplishment, but so is launching a podcast about online learning or starting a robust blog about internal medicine. Recognition for your hard work is always appreciated. But even more important, you’d like for it to resonate with other academics in the field. You’ve gone ahead and built it, but they still haven’t come. Where are those people?
To mitigate the spotlight effect, remind yourself that:
- People are much more fixated on and concerned with their own lives than they are about you.
- Social media feeds and news cycles move quickly. What you feel is highlighted by a bat signal isn’t invariably hovering in others’ 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 mike. According to Leslie K. Moon of Harvard Business School, “Research indicates that in situations where others share too, people can successfully convey their accomplishments without coming across as unlikable, egotistical or inconsiderate.”
Are others adding their perspectives on LinkedIn? Could this topic be worthy of a presentation or webinar? What about adding commentary in forums? The specific medium you choose is dependent upon the available time and effort you have to dedicate, but know that it doesn’t have to be a heavy lift. (Crafting a post on social media is probably going to be easier than writing a proposal for a talk.)
Consider the price of inaction. It is difficult to calculate precisely what is lost when you don’t publicly share your accomplishments or engage other people in dialogue about your work. The results of compounded effort can easily be witnessed among faculty members who have become household names, but there are many tangible benefits that could align with your personal goals—even if you don’t desire to achieve academic influencer status or anything close to it.
The bottom line: you can promote your work and come across as genuine, not self-aggrandizing. In the process, you can learn more about your field, build meaningful connections and help others by contributing your ideas.