Are you guilty of humblebragging?

Published on 8 February 2018

Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

I learned a new word recently – Humblebrag. It means, and I quote, “When you, usually consciously, try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility”. In international development circles this unfortunately happens a lot. 

Let me give you an example. “Ugh I look so exhausted on that BBC interview, I knew I shouldn’t have gone straight from that Chatham House event, but the comms team said it had to be me” OR “It was complete chance that I got invited to speak on the UN panel, if I hadn’t been at that reception with the Assistant Secretary General…”.  Well that is humblebragging.  And in the field of development where we are trying to grapple with big challenges i.e. poverty, inequalities, sustainability, which requires breaking down barriers and building understanding, the egos and the faux humility aren’t particularly helpful.

Only recently I realised I was guilty of the humblebrag. Having entered a competition to be considered for an innovation award, I learned that the IDS project we had put forward – aimed to help improve young people’s access to sex education and awareness of digital safety, (shameless plug) – had not been selected to win. I was disappointed when I heard this. I wanted to win as I believe that the approach that we took was innovative but it was also rooted in research evidence and local urban reality. The co-construction of the concept, the process, the products and the knowledge, enabled collaborations with artists, students and researchers where each brought their own expertise and freedom to shape. This was joyful and this was important as it enabled us to stretch the possibilities and the effort beyond the initial brief. In short, we had embodied an approach which meant that egos were left behind.

The video below is about the project and was our entry for the award.

However, sharing the news with a friend that we had not been selected for the award I realised that my ego had crept in. I was basically saying, “oh poor me. I didn’t win the nice shiny innovation award, even though lots of people clearly thought it was a brilliant idea.” I was being a humble bragger.

At strategic levels, egos can be costly and can get in the way of progress. At the level of research communication, where I have most experience, concerns about who gets their logo on the final report or who should take credit for research impact are daily concerns. The challenge is to recognise when it is happening and question if it helps to add value or further wider aims.

To increase awareness and understanding of global development research and improve the use of knowledge in effective decision-making, we often have to employ lots of tools and communications techniques. In the Knowledge, Impact and Policy team at IDS we do this in a range of ways that includes developing innovative research communications products and bringing people together to share knowledge and build networks. Because of our reputation for high quality research and strong partnerships we are lucky to be able to convene discussions and bring a wide range of voices to the table.

However, this work can be increasingly challenging in a world of growing competition and diminishing funds. There is more and more pressure to demonstrate to donors and commissioners that money has been well spent and that direct impact has been achieved. The danger in this context is that people begin to brag and shout to raise their profile, when really relying on the integrity and quality of the approach and building on the learning is probably a better way to move forward.

We can all fall fowl of humblebragging at times. The trick is to spot when you are doing it. Refocus and remember that our job is to contribute to a deeper understanding of issues, not to build our own egos.

Kelly Shephard is a bad loser and the Head of the Knowledge, Impact and Policy team at IDS.