Anybody who wants to be somebody understands that a little self-promotion isn't a bad thing. After all, the easier it is for people to see your accomplishments and capabilities, the greater chance you usually have of being considered for new opportunities. But mindful, strategic self-promotion isn't the same as constantly showing off like a peacock.
Why People Like to Show Off
Based on work by psychologists and psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler, as well as personality disorder criteria and my personal experience, I believe that most people show off in the office for one of five reasons:
Narcissists generally have an inflated self-image and feel entitled. But they also have deep need for admiration and praise, as accolades further support their grandiose self-view. Showing off in the office, including exaggerating achievements, is their way of setting up this positive reinforcement.
2. Low Self-Esteem
Whereas narcissists show off because they want to confirm a high self-concept they already have, individuals with low self-esteem do it because they are desperate to build their low self-concept up. Showing off invites you to present the praise and rewards that they'll try to replay in their minds as evidence they do in fact matter.
3. Fear of Missing Out
Today's hustle, dog-eat-dog culture can make someone doubt work choices, leaving them scared that they're going to get lost in the shuffle unless they ruthlessly point out what they've been able to accomplish.
Workplace success coach Melody Wilding refers to this as career or opportunity FOMO. So some people with normal, healthy egos might show off at every opportunity because they want to feel like they're more proactively taking every step possible to secure a good future for themselves. Their approach is throw-it-all-at-the-wall to gain as many chances as possible, rather than any real strategy, typically because they might not be internally clear about their goals and what it is they honestly want to do.
4. Revenge and Bullying
A person in the office who has had previous conflicts or who doesn't get along with a teammate sometimes might show off as a way of sending a subtle power message to the other individual. They might promote themselves in front of managers, experts or new contacts not because they really want a new relationship, praise or opportunity, but because they want to ensure that their rival doesn't get those benefits and "knows their place".
If you are overworked and don't give workers a good way to come to you, they can turn to showing off to signal that they want to connect.
How to handle a showoff effectively
Because showing off can have multiple motivations, you can't take a purely blanket approach to solving it. Your main goal as a leader should be first to know your team well enough to feel comfortable having a frank discussion about how they feel and think. This will help you differentiate how best to respond to the behavior. But after that, I tend to stick to the following personal guidelines.
1. Give unexpected rewards and praise. Showing off happens with "if-then" expectation--"If I do x, I get y." But giving rewards and praise when it's not anticipated can help showoffs see that there's an alternative to this pattern so that they are more willing to just let good stuff happen.
Unexpected rewards and praise also can be more motivating, which further helps shift the behavior. Psychologist Jean Twenge recommends praising to emphasize the task, not the person (e.g., "This was well done"), so as not to further inflate a big ego.
2. Give data. Individuals don't always see their strengths and weaknesses well. Information like metrics can help people see that they're doing better than they thought or, conversely, understand that they do need to grow. Once you offer the data, always help your worker develop a clear plan for what to do next.
3. Be tactful with mistakes. Point these out quickly, but always give an accessible path to a remedy.
4. Provide career testing, counseling, advice and interpersonal introductions. In addition to being a source of quantifiable data, this helps workers get a clearer view of where they want to go so that they focus self-promotion in key areas and direct that self-promotion at the right people.
5. Observe and refer. If there's a conflict you notice, be transparent with those about what you see and what your expectations are. If you cannot resolve the issue on your own, refer the workers to HR or have them work with a neutral intermediary.
6. Be balanced and visible. By effectively managing your time and being careful not to overload yourself, you'll have more opportunities to interact with everyone at all levels so they feel like you already notice them. You can make sure their hard work is driven by passion for the company vision, rather than a desire just to please and attract you.
7. Create and enforce clear policy. This refers not only to disciplinary options surrounding conflicts, but also in regard to fair and equal opportunity. Make sure that everyone qualified has the option to try, and don't let your behavior give the impression of favoritism.