The research is clear: the more credible the messenger, the more credible the message. Nowhere is this more important than when negotiating. Ensuring others seriously consider your request, offer, or formal proposal requires that they trust and find credible your opinion. Buy a health remedy? Sure, if well-known doctors recommend it; maybe not if strangers without appropriate credentials are hawking the product. Establishing credibility could be accomplished by your attire; studies have shown the effects of wearing a uniform or suit and tie.1 People typically want the opinions of experts when they make decisions. In negotiations, when the risk of being persuaded is high, we assess the credibility of the other’s opinions: Is this true/factual? Are they an authority or qualified to make this claim? Does their track record support their purported capabilities? By speaking about one’s own experience, expertise or credentials, a negotiator invokes the power of authority and increases their credibility.
It’s a different story for women, for whom flaunting their titles or bragging about their accomplishments is considered unladylike. Societal norms make it difficult for women to push their expertise, potentially limiting their credibility—and therefore success—in negotiations. Most men—who are encouraged to compete with other men—tend not to shy away from “peacocking”. Research suggests that even when they possess only 20 percent of the skills required for a position, men would confidently apply for that position for which women ticking fewer than 80 percent of the boxes wouldn’t even consider applying. This confidence and swagger in men is expected and rewarded, whereas the same type of behavior from women is punished. If negotiators fear backlash from peacocking, they’ll refrain, disadvantaging themselves.
Given societal, gendered norms, we expected that establishing credibility—while valuable—is something men do but women do not. In our research, we found that it’s more complicated than that. The behavior of men and women depends on their career stage. Women early in their careers—less than 15 years of work experience—were less likely to “peacock”2 than women later in their careers (15 or more years of work experience). However, men were more likely to peacock early in their careers than later in their careers.
What might explain these findings?
For women, it may be that early in their careers women still adhere to societal norms. Loathe to call too much attention to themselves, less experienced women make their case for credibility in more subtle ways—if at all—and refrain from “bragging” about their qualifications. Over time, and frustrated by the advancement of their male colleagues, women might care a bit less about the rules. Growing in confidence and over the imposter syndrome, they lean into their power and use it to ensure others know who they are and why they’re there.
For men, early into their careers, the norms of self-promotion and assertiveness are both comfortable and profitable: they get the attention, contracts, positions, and salaries they bargained for. Fifteen or more years later, they recognize how credible they are (and perhaps the privilege being male affords them in the workplace) and wear their “air”—no need to waste time stating the obvious. Or perhaps, after fifteen or more years in the workforce, they’ve received feedback from others on their overly aggressive ways and have adjusted.
What lessons should women—and men—take from this research?
For women: Like the adoption of any new behavior, practice gives way to comfort. However, given how long the “rules” have been imprinted on women, our first suggestion is for women to ask someone else (male or female) to “platform” them, drawing attention to her title, achievements, or capabilities in an introduction. Women are uncomfortable doing this for themselves, but accept being introduced by others. Not sure this will happen spontaneously? Meet with others—possibly more senior women who may be more comfortable establishing their credibility—before a meeting or negotiation and ask them to introduce you. Be willing to do the same for others.
Another suggestion is to practice introducing yourself (and your titles/position/etc.) in lower risk contexts and with lower status people, e.g., volunteer for career day at a local high school or college. These low-stakes opportunities help create muscle memory and comfort for higher-stakes ones. Finally, consider recording yourself making an introduction—like one you’d want others to make of you—and view it. Honestly assess whether it sounds like bragging or information sharing…and how you’d feel if another woman (or man!) were to introduce themselves to you that way.
For men: Because when women win, everyone wins, be an ally. Support women—especially those in your organization—by platforming them in meetings and negotiations and coaching them one-on-one about the importance of establishing credibility. Outside of meetings, take opportunities to talk up female colleagues’ expertise with stakeholders, including customers and clients. Finally, be mindful of your verbal and non-verbal behavior; do you interrupt women speakers, talk over them rather than wait to speak, or push your credentials so hard that you intimidate others? Do you judge women who peacock more harshly than men who do this? If you aren’t sure, ask a trusted colleague to find out how well you perform as an ally.