In India, it’s crabs in a bucket — the one who tries to escape is pulled down by his compatriots. In Australia, it’s tall poppies — and the tallest one gets its head whacked off. In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Almost every culture has its own metaphor about what happens to people who are judged by their peers to be overreaching.
In the U.S., known for its embrace of assertive self-confidence, it’s a different story, however. Personal branding is seen as a positive way to differentiate oneself in the American workplace. But for foreign professionals who grew up with a vastly different set of cultural mores and who now need to succeed in the United States or other contexts where personal branding is important, this can be quite a difficult adjustment.
In our travels as professors and speakers, we’ve often heard the same refrain. “I understand that personal branding is important,” executives and managers often tell us. “But I just can’t bring myself to do it!” It’s no wonder. Andy’s research has indicated that personal branding, or self-promotion, is one of six major areas of cultural difference that cause discomfort for people around the world. One Indian manager in Andy’s research, for example, compared personal branding to “committing a sin” — perhaps an extreme reaction, but still indicative of how hard it can be to do personal branding, especially if you come from a country like China or India or Korea where modesty, composure, and self-control are more culturally valued characteristics than the ability to toot your own horn.
But the benefits of personal branding — including taking control of how you’re perceived by others, and making them understand the unique contribution you can make — are vast. So how can foreign professionals reconcile their values with personal branding? Here are a few points to keep in mind.
Rebrand the act of personal rebranding. Particularly if you grew up in a culture that emphasizes humility and modesty, the idea of drawing attention to yourself — especially to tout your accomplishments — may seem distasteful. However, a key way to mitigate these feelings is to “rebrand” the very act of personal branding itself. For example, instead of thinking of it as blatant self-promotion, think about who else, besides you, can benefit from your efforts. For example, university professors who write books end up promoting their university in the process. And if you’re viewed as a sought-after expert in your field, clients will often hire your company just so they have access to your skills.
Authenticity matters. Part of the reason personal branding raises so many hackles is its association with salesmanship — the idea that you’re packaging yourself to appear attractive to “buyers,” and may be willing to sacrifice your true self to do so. But that’s not what personal branding is. On the contrary, what we’re talking about is thoughtful, honest self-assessment, which many people genuinely believe in. If you have a clear picture of how you can contribute and make others aware of it, you’re actually taking a stand against being a finger-to-the-wind glad-hander. You’re demonstrating enough honesty and authenticity to be clear on where you excel, where you don’t, and the real value you can offer others. Being authentic is also a way to honor those who have helped you become who you are — your bosses and mentors, or even your teachers and parents. By thinking about personal branding as honoring the time and effort they put into your development, it can make the act itself feel more legitimate.
Strike a compromise with yourself. Although you may come from a culture that shuns self-promotion, chances are, there’s some part of you that sees the benefits. So, strike a compromise with yourself and find a way to do personal branding that works for you. In our work, we’ve seen a variety of different ways that professionals who were initially uncomfortable with the idea have ended up embracing personal branding by making a few simple adjustments and customizing or personalizing their approach. Andy recently met a young professional from Nepal who was very uncomfortable branding herself and her personal achievements in the U.S., since she came from a culture that emphasized the group over the individual. Her solution was to actually blend and combine these two perspectives. She would emphasize her individual accomplishments but only in the context of what the group as a whole was able to achieve — and in the end, this blended solution was successful enough for her to find a job.
The adjustments go both ways: when Dorie visited Asia on a recent speaking tour, she had to reprogram some of her American habits. Stateside, she accepts compliments with a simple, appreciative “thank you” — any self-deprecating remarks (“oh, it wasn’t actually that good”) would be viewed as insulting the person making the compliment and indicative of a serious lack of self-esteem. In Asia, however, the mitigating remark is a closely-watched sign that determines whether or not you’re perceived as a jerk. It pains her to tamp down the self-confidence that’s so prized in American culture, but she makes a point to try.
Some people reject personal branding out of hand because they believe it conflicts with their most cherished values. But by keeping the principles above in mind — and reframing what it means to self-promote — you can ensure you maintain your integrity but still get noticed for all that you do.
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