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What's in a word: Proud

Are you proud of what you do for a living? Are you proud of where you work? (Should you be?) Are you proud of who you are, as a person?

These are all questions I have often wrestled with. I have asked myself whether I could say publicly that "I am proud to work for XYZ", and reflected on what it meant, and what I should do, if the answer was no. I have also, perhaps, controversially, sometimes wondered, especially around the time of Pride, whether I genuinely feel proud to be gay, or rather whether this is the right word to express how I feel - I shall return to this a little later.

In my research on organisational behaviour (current and recent), the question of being proud about working in a certain industry or for a certain organisation comes up frequently. Interestingly, it manifests itself in significantly varying ways, pretty much a spectrum, from those expressing unconditional pride in their organisation (what it does and their own contribution to it), those feeling more indifferent or detached, to those feelings antagonised by an ubiquitous corporate discourse of pride which they feel they can't identify with. What is less clear is whether being proud means the same to all of them.

Defining "proud"

A first stop to review how proud is being defined is the good old dictionary. The picture above comes from our very own hard copy Oxford dictionary, which dates back to the 90s. A more recent Oxford Languages online definition offers the following:

  1. feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one's own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated. "a proud grandma of three boys"

  2. having or showing a high or excessively high opinion of oneself or one's importance. "he was a proud, arrogant man"

  3. conscious of one's own dignity. "I was too proud to go home"

  4. imposing; splendid. "bulrushes emerge tall and proud from the middle of the pond"

The Cambridge online dictionary also includes, as a second definition of proud: "having or showing respect for yourself", which I think is worthy of consideration.

Turning to academics and scholars, a quick search brings up some other interesting insights to consider. The different meanings shared above also come across, and Fischer (2012) points out the paradox between a positive feeling of pride in terms of achievements or self respect, with, on the other hand, a reminder of pride also being one of the seven deadly sins. Fischer also makes a helpful distinction between pride as an emotion, feeling proud, and a trait, being proud. Tong and Yang (2011) bring up Darwin's definition of a proud person being someone who exerts their superior position over others (clearly seeing it as a trait in Fischer's terms), and they go on to define pride as "a 'self-conscious' emotion with a distinctive self-evaluative quality", an outcome of self-reflection which one takes satisfaction from.

These varying and contrasting definitions illustrate the wide spectrum of meanings for proud, or pride, going from dignity and self-respect, to satisfaction from achievements or possessions, to a more negative idea of superiority verging on to arrogance. The distinction between emotion and trait also adds a possible consideration of pride being something connected to a moment in time, or more long-standing characteristic. Of course, in many cases the context will clearly indicate how it is intended to be understood. Still, there remains a good degree of potential misalignment between what the word proud is intended to convey, and how it is perceived. Should more care be taken when talking about pride? Let's consider it further in two separate contexts.

Proud to work...

Being able to publicly express that someone is proud to work for a particular company or within a specific industry tends to be, for them, a good indicator of their level of comfort with their position. This transpires very clearly in many of my research interviews, where one's inability to claim this sense of pride tends to lead to questioning, and often action, which has been the case in my own story with the Defence industry.

But there too, how proud is being defined makes a great difference. My own definition of feeling proud is closer to the sense of achievement mentioned earlier, together with a positive impact, the sense that me / others are better off because of the thing I am proud of doing. In addition, I've always felt that there had to be something absolute about being able to claim pride in one's work (i.e., no negative unintended consequences of my actions / what I contribute to or am a part of, nothing I could be picked up on, effectively), which is what has often held me back. My perception of others talking about being proud of where they work also gives me a slight feeling of divisiveness, as I see it as being positioned as taking a position of superiority, albeit not necessarily in an intended antagonistic way, against others working elsewhere.

And this is how I would define being proud, a view born and developed through my own background and experiences, one which may differ greatly from others. Looking back at research papers for example, Borst and Lako (2017) look at this from a public sector perspective, and consider a proud public servant to work "honourably, conscientiously and with dedication", which takes us somewhat away from a feeling a superiority.

With this in mind, should organisations aim to develop pride within their workforce? Use it as a communication, engagement or attraction narrative? Not only will it have a different meaning to different people, I have also found that some people can feel alienated with this narrative, especially when they have a consciousness or concerns over some of the impact of their organisation's activities. Trying to push a sense of pride could look to them as trying to ignore the reality of their business, making them feel like outsiders because of their concerns. In that case, listening to people's perspectives instead of pushing out the pride narrative, may help organisations identify what people genuinely care about, and develop as a force for positive change.

Proud to be...

Looking at proud and pride in a different context, and perhaps slightly controversially so (bear with me...), I often reflect on its use in the LGBTQ+ context. The view of what it means to be proud I shared above applies in these reflections as well, making me wonder whether, for me, being proud to be a gay man would express any feeling of superiority or that being gay is better than any alternative. And of course, this is not what I feel at all. In fact, I wouldn't expect that this is what anyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels like (although it clearly isn't for me to speak on behalf of the community!).

When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, and other minorities for that matter, it is worth returning to the other aspect of the definition of proud, which focuses on self-respect and dignity, which is what these communities will look to claim unequivocally. It is worth remembering also in this context that pride is often positioned as the opposite of shame, which might be the most appropriate and powerful of seeing this. Claiming loudly to be proud, to send away the feeling of shame which has been associated with the community for too long.

I hope this review of the variations of uses and meanings of this one word, proud, highlights and illustrates two phenomena: how simple words, often taken for granted, can attract different levels of understanding, and potentially consequences well beyond what might have been envisaged; and that all of us engage in regular sense-making activities, influenced by our individual backgrounds, beliefs and circumstances, which we need to keep in mind in our interactions.

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Cited references:

Borst, R. T., & Lako, C. J. (2017). Proud to be a public servant? An analysis of the work-related determinants of professional pride among Dutch public servants. International Journal of Public Administration, 40(10), 875-887.

Fischer, J. (2012). Being proud and feeling proud: character, emotion, and the moral psychology of personal ideals. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 46, 209-222.

Tong, E. M., & Yang, Z. (2011). Moral hypocrisy: Of proud and grateful people. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(2), 159-165.


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