Let’s talk about modesty and business.
While working on my book research, I reached out to a wide range of people in business within various industries. I was looking for interviews and case studies to show real examples in my book of how the principle of scarcity plays out in the business world.
What was interesting—and also surprising—is that only men were agreeing to interviews.
Fortunately, I was able to connect with the amazing female owner of a multimillion-dollar jewelry business towards the end of the writing process. She had some great insight but was the only woman included in my book.
I kept thinking about this lack of female participants after my book was already submitted and in the editing process. During a morning coffee meeting with Dr. Robert Cialdini, I started to understand what might be going on underneath the surface—and when I say underneath the surface, I'm talking about psychology.
If you don't know who Dr. Cialdini is, he wrote the best-selling book Influence. It's an amazing book that's been a bestseller for decades. As Dr. Cialdini and I were sitting and drinking coffee, I was explaining this whole puzzle to him. He asked me why I thought women weren’t agreeing to be interviewed.
I had a theory, and I explained it to him. I said that I thought women might not be looking for recognition; they just want to do the work. He nodded and said, “Yeah, that could be it.”
But he also gave another theory that had to do with modesty. He explained to me that, years ago, he did a research study about men and modesty versus women and modesty. He explained that, through his research, he found that women tend to be more modest in their accomplishments than men.
This theory sent me down a rabbit hole about modesty. I started thinking about different experiences I have had in the workplace, and then I started thinking about my co-workers. I realized there could be something to what Dr. Cialdini said.
I want to talk a bit about the psychology of modesty in business. I’ll give you some advice on how to strike that right balance between being modest and demonstrating pride in your accomplishments.
Modesty is a public underrepresentation of your positive traits and abilities. Historically, it is associated with the female gender role.
Modesty isn't always bad. Modesty can be a great quality to have at work because it can help with collaboration and create a respectful work environment. However, it’s also important to communicate your skills and accomplishments effectively, whether you are a business owner, nurse, teacher, or working member of another industry.
The Psychology of Modesty in Business and Beyond
Studies have explored ways that modesty can impact social relationships, showing that modest individuals tend to be more likable. Modest individuals are also more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and even cooperative. As I said before, modesty isn’t always bad.
Research has also explored the relationship between modesty and leadership. Findings show that modest leaders tend to be more effective at inspiring and motivating their teams. They’re also less likely to be perceived as arrogant or overbearing.
There are also cultural dimensions of modesty. Studies have examined how culture and modesty interact. These studies have found some cultures value modesty more than others. For example, modesty is more highly valued in East Asian cultures than in Western cultures.
Modesty: Men Versus Women
Studies show that not only is modesty perceived to be a more feminine trait—women tend to act in ways that confirm these gender role expectations. This means that women tend to behave more modestly in achievement settings.
A few years ago, Shonda Rhimes made a bold statement: she said that women do not brag enough.
If you don't know who Rhimes is, she's a successful TV screenwriter, producer, and author. She was involved with Grey's Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal. She is also part of a lot of newer Netflix series. If anyone has room to brag, it's Shonda Rhimes.
At a different event, Rhimes was quoted as saying:
“The other day, I came to this conclusion that men brag and women hide.”
Modesty is generally seen as a virtue; it can help foster humility and respect for others. But it's important to have that balance between being modest and being confident in your abilities. Communicating your skills and accomplishments effectively is important to increase your visibility. It also builds your reputation within your organization, with customers, vendors, and co-workers.
I will credit Rebecca Horan’s amazing article for Entrepreneur for the following practical tips for balancing modesty and confidence at work.
Leave Your Comfort Zone
The first tip from Horan is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Start with simply receiving a compliment. If someone compliments you on your work, say, “Thank you, I’m really proud of the results,” instead of downplaying it.
Share Your Knowledge
I love Horan’s next tip: Don’t be stingy with your knowledge at work. You’re an expert at what you do; it’s okay to share that with other people. If you're comfortable with public speaking, sharing your knowledge and giving advice in a workshop, conference, or even a smaller networking group can allow you to demonstrate your achievements, knowledge, and expertise while remaining humble.
If you're not comfortable with getting in front of people—or even if you are comfortable getting in front of people—there are other steps you can take to share the information you’ve learned, such as:
● Writing articles about your expertise.
● Creating emails and newsletters around a topic you know a lot about.
● Going on LinkedIn and creating informational posts for others to comment on.
Think of it this way: when you were a student sitting in class, you didn’t think your instructor was boastful because they were telling you something. Instead, you were listening to someone teach you about something they knew; you, the student, were getting knowledge from them.
Talk About Your Results
Let’s say that you are in a sales role. It’s okay to say you tripled your sales this month. If you launched a new product, it's okay to talk about that, too. It’s also fine to talk about client acquisition. It’s alright to talk about the results of anything that makes sense for your role and what you do.
Let Your Clients Brag for You
If you work directly with clients and customers, use the testimonials they give you. You don't always have to brag about yourself directly; let the customer do it for you. Testimonials are a great way to show your achievements and what you're capable of.
Modesty in business is not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to have the right balance between being modest and being confident in your abilities. The practical tips I outlined can help you strike that balance.