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My Colleague Is Always Stealing The Limelight - What Can I Do?

Self promotion doesn't come easily to everyone - but how do you get your chance to shine when your colleague's constantly shouting about their achievements? Our careers coaches have the answer...

In a world of inspirational memes and #girlpost Instagram posts, it’s easy to forget that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way forward at times. Sue Unerman is the Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom and Kathryn Jacob OBE is the Chief Executive at Pearl and Dean. Together they wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business. Each week answer your work questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work…

I have a colleague who constantly steals the limelight, and does everything they can to ensure that all eyes are on them during meetings or presentations. What can I do?

Kathryn: Well firstly, what do you mean exactly?

Is your colleague actually promoting themselves at your expense? Or they just trying to get noticed?

If it is the former, then it’s worthwhile considering what their motives are.

It is possible that they are envious of you and your profile? Perhaps they’re new to the company or the team and have arrived from a culture where you only get on if you trample your colleagues.

Sue: I once had a boss who in my first week introduced me to my opposite number in the team by saying only one of you will get promoted so if you want to get on then you need to beat him. I was really surprised. Firstly that he should so openly set us against each other and secondly by the waste of effort this would entail. I think in retrospect I had a gendered reaction to my new boss’ somewhat martial statement. He was imagining some survival of the fittest scenario where we both got tougher because of challenging each other. I just thought it was a waste of effort and that we’d be better off helping each other to beat our real competition (which was of course outside our own business who were up against us in pitches for new clients). It is possible that women have a more natural instinct to collaborate and work together for mutual benefit. But I’ve worked with plenty of men who believe in team work too.

Kathryn: If your colleague is putting you down, it might be because they feel insecure and that you look like you’ve got everyone’s confidence when they don’t. I suggest dealing with this with kindness first of all. A kind word from you might cheer them up and if you praise them they might get the picture and start supporting you in return.

Sue: Of course it’s possible that they won’t, but in that case at least you’ve tried. And it never hurts your reputation to be seen as positive about colleagues. You’ve really got nothing to lose by at least trying this tactic.

Kathryn: I’ve got to also ask, why aren’t you blowing your own trumpet? It does seem to be the case that women often will work very hard and expect that this will be noticed and acknowledged. This isn’t necessarily going to happen, I’m afraid. Everyone else is very busy with their own work, and in trying to be noticed themselves. Don’t sit there feeling unacknowledged and do nothing but resent it. Frankly you need to do a bit of advertising about what you’re achieving above and beyond.

One of the true stories in our book The Glass Wall is about a woman who has quite a senior role with a large team and lots of responsibility. She acknowledges that she hasn’t blown her own trumpet nearly as much as some of her colleagues and that this has held her back. She told us: “if I bump into my boss and he’s aware I am in the middle of tackling a situation and he says to me “how’s it going?” I will say back to him, “Oh its fine I’m handling it”. A man in the same situation will talk specifics at length. He will say, “It’s fine, I have done this, I have made this happen, I have saved the day.” He will draw attention to himself”. It just seems more important to men to promote themselves. They have an inbuilt belief that they have a right to do it.”

Sue: When we talk about this story, and our advice in the book that you shouldn’t be left behind because others self-promote more aggressively than you do sometimes we’re asked “are you telling me to change character or to behave more like a man?” And our answer is NO! Please don’t be anything other than yourself. It is too exhausting to be someone else and you won’t be as good at it.

What we do suggest is that you find a way to promote yourself that is in character. For example, if I know that Kathryn is going to see my boss soon then I might ask her to mention something that I’ve done that has resonated in a good way with her. This is not outrageous showing off, it’s just asking a friend, colleague or customer to reflect on your good performance.

Kathryn: Or you could suggest a regular review of the work in the department and find a way of highlighting your own contribution. This doesn’t have to be a meeting, perhaps a regular report or an email and then again it’s not as overt or uncomfortable as showing off in person.

Sue: It is important to find a way through this though. In an ideal world your boss always would recognise your achievements in a structured way. But in the pressured environments we operate in these days he or she might have lots of other things on their mind, including their own career progression, rather than how you’re getting on. Their own key performance indicators which they are rewarded on are probably based on business results primarily rather than on how your career is going. So I am afraid that this is what they will focus on first most of the time.

Kathryn: You need sponsors in the workplace. People who will talk positively about you when you’re not in the room. Your progress at work doesn’t just rely on outrageous self-aggrandizement, but you do need to find a way to shine a light on your good work.

Sue and Kathryn’s book The Glass Wall, Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business is available from Amazon.