The Positive Trait That Holds Talented People Back at Work

May 11, 2016

In a perfect world, your completed assignments would speak for themselves. You’d work on friendly, collaborative teams with fair-minded co-workers, and each person would be free with praise and full of self-effacing humility. You’d never have to worry about self-promotion or navigating office politics to get your due. 

But the reality is that you need to speak up. Generosity and a humble nature are great attributes to have, of course. They help you keep a team-first attitude, improve your leadership abilities, and generally endear people to you as a professional. 

However, if you think you can just let your work speak for itself and never stake out that territory yourself, then being “the humble one” is hurting your career. 

Here’s how:

 

1. It Makes You Invisible

Imagine this: Your team just completed a complex, innovative project, and you feel proud of your contributions to the group effort. But when the boss stands up at the company meeting to praise your team’s work, others are singled out for individual contributions while you seem invisible. If you’re a quieter contributor, everyone from your own teammates to company leadership may overlook you completely. 

Why is this? People tend to be remembered for those roles rather than the exact things they did. For instance, the “organizer” will usually get credit for most tasks related to organization, because people will remember him as inhabiting that role. 

If you take on tasks behind the scenes, your work may go unnoticed. And if you’re used to being humble, you think: What does it matter so long as the work gets done? Well, consider this: Just like you have a personal brand for your online presence, you also have a brand (or lack thereof) within your own work team. If you’re not known for anything, you’ll be lost in the shuffle when opportunities for advancement come up and no one can think of your strengths. 

 

Solution: Carve Out Your Niche on Your Team

Step one: Pick a role you like. Step two: Make it known that you’ve mastered that particular skill or job. Take ownership of what you’d like to be known for on your team and look for opportunities to pick up projects or tasks involving that thing. 

For example, maybe your work is rarely noticed because you sign up for roles that require execution, rather than standing up in front of the room and presenting. You can make that work, so long as your teammates come to depend on you for those tasks. In other words, make sure everyone knows that you have killer attention to detail, so for example, drafts always cross your desk before they’re considered final. 

Or if you’re great at mediating different points of view, don’t just tell Tonia what she could say to Jim, share your solution with the group, so everyone knows you’re a strong facilitator. This way, when the final project is done, people will know you played a role. 

 

2. It Makes You a Doormat

It’s a terrible feeling when someone else takes credit for your work. Whether it’s the bully in grade school or your backstabbing co-worker, this type of betrayal can be shocking and hard to respond to. 

You’d think it would be less likely to when you like the people you work with, but it can happen to anyone. Stolen credit puts you in a sticky spot: At the very least you’re staring down a highly uncomfortable interpersonal situation. Not to mention, even accidental cases could harm your career. 

But if you’re used to being modest, you worry that correcting the other person is counter-productive. So you remind yourself that “there’s no ‘I’ in team” and let someone else get all the accolades.

 

Solution: Share Credit, But Don't Throw it Away

The first step to ensuring you get credit is making sure you’re not getting in your way. When someone compliments you, don’t shy away from it and gush about others. Think about the difference between deflecting praise and sharing it. It’s possible to believe strongly in your team and put “we” first while also mentioning your contributions, which allows you to draw and distribute attention at the same time. 

Instead of: “Oh, thanks, but I give all the credit for that website to my team.” Try this instead: “Thank you, I enjoyed working on the UX. The whole team really pulled together to bring that site to life.”

If you regularly practice this sort of balance, you’ll be prepared to diplomatically respond to someone who takes credit for your idea by employing the same technique. You could say, “I was so thrilled to see John shares my belief that changing directions will be beneficial. It’s so nice to see we’re all on the same page!” This way, you’re crediting your team, but making sure you’re not cut out of the picture.

 

3. It Makes You Feel Stuck

It’s hard to find a balance between proudly claiming your due and sounding cocky—especially if you’ve never been one to talk about yourself. You want to be seen for your accomplishments and abilities, but without off-putting self-praise that makes people uncomfortable.

And if you’ve been in the background some time, you could feel that that’s what your co-workers expect of you. You don’t want to change team dynamics or be seen as having flipped a switch all the way from “humble and quiet” to “arrogant and loud” overnight.

It may even be that others are even resistant to your newfound desire to carve out a niche for yourself and speak up for your work.

 

Solution: Establish a Presence Outside Your Team

If your colleagues aren’t supportive—or at best, are just confused and unhelpful to start—consider developing a side project or independent work to showcase your talents. This can make it easier for hiring managers (or your company’s leadership) to see your contributions within the team’s work based on your individual abilities. 

This could mean taking on a completely independent project or work, or looking for freelancing opportunities or volunteer work in your field. (Of course, always make sure your company policies allow freelancing before doing so.) 

Once your co-workers see you accomplish something on your own, they’ll have new information to go off of when constructing their opinion of you and what you can contribute to the team.



Generous people who practice humility can get ahead. The key is to make sure you’re in control of how you practice it. Make it part of your brand within your team—a strength that makes others want to work with you. If you find you’re overdoing it to the point of being overlooked try the tips above to move back to middle ground. You’re an awesome person, I know this because you chose to read this article—so now your goal is to make sure everyone else knows it, too.

By Claire Autruong

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