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Impression management: Developing your self-presentation skills

June 22, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is impression management?

Examples of impression management

The theory behind impression management

Impression management in the workplace

7 impression management techniques

Noticing the practice of impression management

How much is a first impression worth?

We all know the value of a strong first impression, but not many of us know how to strategically go about creating one. Instead, we tend to cultivate two different personas. There’s our relaxed self, when we don’t feel like we have to impress. And then there are the times when we’re “on,” and we become deliberate about every word we say and move we make.

Social media has made us even more aware of the power of our personas. And that doesn’t mean that we have to be inauthentic. Understanding impression management can help us emphasize the qualities that we want to shine through and how to be more at ease with others.

What is impression management?

Canadian social psychologist, sociologist, and writer Erving Goffman first presented the idea of impression management in the 1950s. In his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman uses the idea of theatre as a metaphor for human social interactions.

His theory became known as Goffman's dramaturgical analysis. It provides an interesting contextual framework for understanding human behavior.

People use impression management to align how we’re seen with what we want. In general, we want other people to think of us as confident, likeable, intelligent, capable, interesting, and any number of other positive traits.

We then “adjust” our behavior to exhibit these characteristics to meet a desired goal. This is closely related to the self-presentation theory — and in fact, the two ideas are often used interchangeably.

Examples of impression management

If you’ve ever seen the musical Chicago, you’re familiar with the idea of impression management.

Our client, Roxie Hart, was an ambitious adulterer — a persona that wouldn’t have made her too sympathetic to the jury during her murder trial. Instead, she and her lawyer carefully curated a set of behaviors, actions, and even a backstory that made her seem more likeable and naive. 

This impression management strategy culminated in the song, “They Both Reached for the Gun.” Her lawyer, Billy Flynn, stepped in to manage every part of her presentation to the court, emphasizing that Roxie would only have fired a gun in self-defense.

Outside of the Cook County jail, people use impression management strategies in all kinds of ways. Here are some examples you might have experienced in the workplace: 

  • A person is walking into a meeting. They’ve had a rough morning and an even rougher commute. But they smile broadly and wave at each person as they walk in, hiding their bad mood and exhaustion. To all watching, they’re happy to be here.
  • You’ve been working in your pajamas all day amongst a pile of paperwork and cookie crumbs. Before joining the afternoon Zoom call, you brush your hair, throw on a clean shirt, and dust the crumbs off the sofa.
  • A candidate arrives for their job interview several minutes late. “So sorry,” they say breathlessly. “I was here early, but I got sent to the wrong office.”

What’s the point of this duplicity? 

Well, it might not be all that inauthentic. Despite a rough morning, the first person might genuinely be thrilled to be at work — or might be trying to salvage the day. You might be extremely punctual and just ended up in the wrong place. And it’s totally possible you have no idea how those cookies got there.

On both conscious and unconscious levels, we’re aware that in different situations, we need to emphasize different aspects of our personality and behavior. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t true, just that they’re hidden (under a layer of cookie dust). We tend to engage in a constant, quiet self-monitoring that makes us aware of behaviors that don’t align with how we want to be seen. 

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Awareness of these internal contradictions is known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the sense of psychological discomfort that we feel when we’re doing something that contradicts our beliefs or values. We typically resolve cognitive dissonance by taking an action that’s better aligned with our beliefs, or by changing our beliefs to justify our behavior.

So in the above examples, we smile, clean up, or apologize because we want to emphasize our good nature, professionalism, and punctuality. We curate these behaviors to try to control the impressions others have of us. 

Over time, the behaviors (and feedback we get based on those behaviors) inform our self-concepts. We begin to believe that we are the face that we’re putting out to the world, and to a large extent we are.

After all, a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest, even if no one is around to hear it. But it’s hard to understand the impact of the sound — or put it into context — without an audience.

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The theory behind impression management

Goffman explained impression management theory using theatre as a metaphor. Our behavior in a given setting is based on three components: motives, self-presentation, and social context.

Motives

We adapt our behaviors as a means to an end. We might want to seem more likeable, competent, or attractive. The qualities we decide to emphasize are the ones that we believe are in line with the outcome we want.

If you pay attention to people’s behavior across different settings, you can often guess what they want to accomplish. The behaviors and qualities they “play up” will clue you into the goal. 

Self-presentation

Self-presentation falls into two main categories: actions that are aligned with your self-image, and actions that align with the expectations of the “audience.” When people respond positively to the projected self, it has a positive impact on our self-esteem. 

This effect is multiplied when the desired image feels congruent with the audience’s expectations. In other words, when people feel like they can bring their whole selves to the “performance,” and that self is welcomed and rewarded, they feel great about themselves. In the workplace, these individuals have higher job satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and increased retention.

Social context

Our public image is also closely tied to how we conduct ourselves in social situations. We inform our understanding of acceptable and unacceptable (and by extension, desirable and undesirable) behavior according to context and social norms.

When we’re successful in making the desired impressions on a group, we feel good about our social standing.

Impression management in the workplace

Impression management is a very important skill to have in the workplace. It affects your social influence at work, or — in other words — how others perceive you and your company. 

How organizations use impression management

Organizations use it for both internal and external purposes. Internally, companies want to be seen by the industry as a good place to work. They want to appear organized, capable, supportive, and financially stable. Impression management is closely related to company culture. 

Organizations also use impression management for external purposes. This might include communications with clients, partners, or investors. Managing the positive and negative impression a company has on the general public is usually called public relations or marketing.

Impression management in interviews

The classic scenario of impression management in the workplace is the job interview. Candidates and interviewers alike feel compelled to try to look “perfect.” This means coming across as “authentically perfect” — that is, pleasant, competent, and yet not so perfect as to seem disingenuous.  

Interviews also involve quite a bit of self-promotion. Although self-promotion gets a bit of a bad rep, it’s often the best way for a company to find out about a candidate's skills and experience. This kind of self-promotion can help a candidate leave a positive impression on a prospective employer or client.

Note that this is only true when self-promotion is based in honesty. Lying about your skills or competencies doesn’t earn you any ingratiation points.

Interpersonal impression management

Another common use of impression management at work is building relationships with your colleagues. People usually have a work “persona,” which encompasses a range of behaviors, wardrobe choices, and even topics of conversation. 

While we all shift our behavior to suit different contexts, many feel the shift that happens at work acutely. This is because of the pressure and high value placed on social capital at work, which often compounds other issues of belonging. This kind of impression management is called code-switching.

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7 impression management techniques

Impression management techniques can be used in a variety of situations, from job interviews to networking events. Even if it happens unconsciously, we tend to match our behavior and techniques to the situation. According to Goffman, there are 7 different types of impression management tactics we use to control how others perceive us: conformity, excuses, acclaim, flattery, self-promotion, favors, and association.

1. Conformity

Conformity means being accepted by a larger group. In order to conform, you have to (implicitly or explicitly) uphold the social norms and expectations of the group.

Group norms are the behaviors that are considered appropriate for a situation or in a particular set of people. For example, if your job may have a business-casual dress code, so cut-off jeans would feel out-of-place.

2. Excuses

Excuses are explanations for a negative event given in order to avoid (or lessen) punishment and judgment. There are countless examples of excuses being made — in and out of the workplace. For example, you might hear people blame traffic when they’re late to meetings.  

Generally speaking, you can only count on but so much social favor with excuses and apologies. Once you make an excuse, you’ve given up a little bit of authority in the situations. Do this too often, and you’ll be seen as unreliable or as a perpetual victim.

That being said, traffic, setbacks, and emergencies really do happen. Communicating these changes proactively can go a long way towards building rapport — especially if you show you’re willing to work through it. 

3. Acclaim

Public recognition of someone’s accomplishments often goes a long way towards building rapport. When you acclaim someone in this way, you applaud them for their skills and success. If your team is recognition-driven, this sentiment will likely inspire others to work hard as well. It can help incentivize specific behaviors.

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4. Flattery

Flattery is a technique often used to improve your relationship with someone through compliments. It’s meant to make you seem agreeable, perceptive, and pleasant. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend time with someone who always has something positive to say about them?

As with the other techniques — if not even more so — flattery can easily come across as insincere. Anchor flattering comments in specific praise, and try not to go overboard. It can be helpful to develop self-awareness and ask yourself why you’re piling it on. Are you truly impressed, or are you feeling a little insecure?

5. Self-promotion

Self-promotion is about highlighting your strengths and drawing attention to your achievements. This phenomenon is especially common in business settings, but it’s frequently seen in personal relationships, too. Because it’s self-directed, some worry that “bragging” on themselves will make them less likeable.

You can eliminate a little of this pressure by looking for spaces where talking about yourself isn’t just welcomed, but expected. Social media, job interviews, and professional networking events are great platforms for practicing self-promotion. Curate at least one space where you can own your full range of accomplishments.

6. Favors

Doing a favor for someone, whether in business or in everyday life, shifts the power dynamic of a relationship. It establishes the person doing the favor as “useful,” and may result in the recipient feeling like they owe something to the other party. 

When favors only come with strings attached, people feel manipulated and resentful. When they’re done freely and out of a desire to be helpful, they can build mutual affinity in a relationship.

7. Association

Association means ensuring that any information shared about you, your company, and your partners is truthful and relevant. This is especially important, as being associated with someone means that everyone’s impressions reflect on each other's values and image.

Sometimes, we consciously associate with certain people to promote our self-image. Some people will network with you (and you with others) in hopes of being introduced to a larger network of contacts.

Noticing the practice of impression management

Impression management is the act of managing how other people perceive you. It is a social strategy that we employ in order to make a good impression on others and to control what they think about us. 

The practice of impression management is a common one in modern society. It’s one of the main ways that people try to maintain their social status and establish themselves as a worthy individual. We may not be aware that we’re doing it, but — at any given time — we’re making dozens of decisions that are influenced by what others might think of us.

You can learn how to better manage your own persona, thrive in social situations, and understand the behavior of others by working with a coach. Coaches can help you understand what you need to project more (or less) of to get what you want, and how to align it with your authentic self.

Ready to learn how to improve your influence, both in and out of the workplace? Schedule a demo with a BetterUp coach today.

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Published June 22, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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