Mel Savage Executive Coaching

How You’re Subtly Underselling Yourself at Work

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Are you doing damage to your brand by subtly underselling yourself as a leader? Here are four ways you may be underselling yourself, what it’s doing to your brand and some simple solutions to start shifting your narrative.

“This may be a bad idea, but …”

Do you start sentences with qualifying statements like that? If so, you’re subtly undervaluing your ideas and underselling yourself.

I’m not judging. I’ve done it.

But why do you undersell yourself like that? Why not simply say “Hey – here’s an idea?”

Well, if you were socialized as a woman, you come by ‘the undersell’ honestly.

Society is changing, but as a female leader in the workforce today, you grew up receiving subtle messages that you’re less smart, deserving, or capable than other people.

You’ve been trained to believe that actively demonstrating your belief in your own value is impolite or unseemly…borderline arrogant, right? It’s not what good girls do.

Good girls can be smart but should pretend they’re not.


Let’s be honest… If I said you weren’t smart, you’d get super angry and defend how smart you are. But if I said “You’re really smart”, you’ll likely undersell yourself with some qualifying story about how you’re not as smart as I think you are.

For women, self-advocacy feels like bragging. For men, it feels like Tuesday.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if self-advocacy comes naturally to you or not…self-advocacy is a necessary strategy for leadership success.

Self-advocacy is all about intentionally influencing the narrative around your brand.

And when you’re subtly underselling yourself, that’s how you’re influencing your brand. Is that what you want?

If not, then the first step is getting aware of the subtle ways you may be underselling yourself as a leader, and then implementing some simple solutions to start shifting your narrative.

Here are some easy places to start.

1: You don’t notice your accomplishments (and downplay what you do notice).

Every week, you accomplish so much that you don’t even notice. And even when you do notice something, you either don’t share it or you share it in this awkwardly shy way that demonstrates you feel weird even talking about it.

I start every one of my coaching sessions by asking my client what they want to celebrate. When they first start working with me, they find it one of the hardest questions to answer because they can’t think of anything that’s worthy of celebration.

Just like you, they’re busy ‘getting the job done’. But getting the job done is table stakes. If you want to be noticed by others, you need to notice yourself first.

So the very first thing you can do for yourself is to get used to noticing what you do. Start a little accomplishments list and add to it every day. The more comfortable you get noticing all the incredible things you do, the more natural it will be to share it with others.

2: You qualify your suggestions as potentially bad ideas.

“This may not be a good idea, but…”

“I’m not sure this will work, but…”

You say these things because you don’t want to be seen as pushy, and you’re a little unsure if your idea is a good one. So instead of being seen as pushy, you’re coming across shy and insecure. Not a good trade-off when it comes to your brand.

What’s the worst that can happen if you share your thoughts without the qualifiers? People don’t like your idea or think you don’t get it? So what?

Believe me, there’ll be lots of times when your idea sucks. Don’t take it personally. Just take the learning and throw out more ideas.

Now you’re sending the message that you’re confident and willing to keep trying until the solutions are found.

3: Your discomfort with taking credit or accepting a compliment.

The concern I hear the most is people are afraid of being arrogant.

The thing I help my clients understand is arrogance doesn’t come from an abundance of confidence. Arrogance comes from insecurity. Usually, arrogant people are so insecure, they act superior to others as a protection mechanism.

If you find it difficult to accept a compliment, you’re not in danger of being arrogant. Don’t worry. But if you’re constantly deflecting credit or getting awkward someone compliments you, you ARE in danger of underselling yourself.

Instead of thinking of accepting credit or a compliment as arrogant, you could decide it’s graceful. It’s confident. You could ask yourself “How does accepting credit or a compliment add value to my brand?”

There’s nothing wrong with saying “Thank you for noticing, I’m really proud of the way we pulled that off”.

Take it from a Canadian… a simple “thank you” is a win every time.

4: You take no for an answer.

Let’s celebrate for a second. If you’re asking for what you want, that’s a win and absolutely deserves a pat on the back. If you don’t ask, then the answer is always no… so you’re already ahead of the game.

However, when you DO ask, the answer will often be NO. And rather than thinking that NO is definitive. I want to encourage you to think of it as “not right now” (regardless of how the “no” is presented to you).

I have a client who wants a raise and has a good case for it. She asked her boss (who asked their boss) and the answer was no – she was told to wait until the next pay raise cycle.

Now some people would be upset and then wait to see what happens during the next pay raise cycle. That’s underselling yourself.

Instead, we’re going for the “overselling” strategy. First, she made it clear she was disappointed in the decision but handled it professionally. And now every time she completes another project, she re-asks for a raise. She’s not afraid of hearing “no” 10 times.

Meanwhile, she’s actively looking for another role. She doesn’t want to leave, but she wants to make a certain amount of money if her company keeps saying no, she’ll find someone who will say yes.

What do you think that says about her brand? Who would you want on your team? The person who stops trying after the first “no”? Or the person who never gives up?

Sometimes that latter can be a bit annoying, but I’d pick them for my team every time… and I’d pay them for it too!

Bottom line: Stop pretending and start owning how smart you are.

Your brand is an asset that is built on what you say and do. When you undersell yourself, you’re sending a message. Ask yourself if it’s the message you want to send about the kind of leader you are.

If not, start noticing the subtle ways you’re underselling yourself and make the small shifts into the brand you want to be highlighting.


I have 20+ years working as a leader in the corporate world. I know what you need to do. And I combine that with four years of training as a cognitive behavioral coach. I know how to help you naturally think like the leader you want to be.

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