This article is based on the chapter with the same name in the book People Before Tech: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age, by Duena Blomstrom.
Within the context of work, the idea of “impression management” was first formalised by Leary and Kowalski in 1990 and in the context of what makes teams productive and healthy by professor Amy Edmondson in her studies, talks and book The Fearless Organization.
The oversimplified idea is that we are all hardwired to maximize pleasure and avoid pain and as a result, we are all working hard to mitigate against being seen in a certain fashion which we deem negative and therefore risky to our wellbeing.
We all strive to construct and uphold a favourable image to our peers. As a result and to protect this image, we often fear appearing either Incompetent, Ignorant, Negative or Disruptive/Unprofessional/Intrusive; and we are careful not to say or do anything to risk that happening.
As the “dark side” of Psychological Safety, it is the negative behaviours that arise when team members refrain from speaking up out of this fear of appearing either incompetent, ignorant, negative or intrusive that truly can undermine the health of the team. Whenever we have something to say, be it an opinion, observation, critique or any kind of contribution to the team discussion and yet we decide against engaging because we believe that the intervention would come at a social cost and make us look bad to the team, that is when we impression manage.
The more instances of impression management, the less Psychological Safety there is in the team and conversely, having low Psychological Safety will indeed lead to more Impression Management as well. It’s a very damaging vicious circle and it needs intentional intervention to curb it.
No one is exempt, we all do it in micro-instances countless times during our work weeks – or even our day – and every time we do, we’re risking our chances to succeed as a team.
Both Dr Edmondson and Google’s Project Aristotle found that in teams where the safety is high enough, there is “conversational turn-taking” — everyone engages and for approximately the same amount of time. They also found they have “average social sensitivity”, meaning they exhibit high EQ (emotional quotient), where they can “read” each other’s emotions in the team. We at PeopleNotTech have observed that these teams have a lower incidence of the times where they impression manage.
As explained above, Impression Management is a behaviour everyone engages in and happens multiple times a day, whether in a work or a personal context. When it comes to the personal context, if it is driven by trivial interaction, vanity or even a diffuse need to preserve a curated image of self to your peers, friends and family and – crucially – if it is inoffensive and does not affect the quality of your life by adding pressure or creating anxiety, then there’s little value in attempting to stop it.
By contrast, at work, no team can thrive in absentia of honest, authentic participation and every time we don’t engage because one of the fears in impression management held us back, we are depriving the team of a chance to succeed. As a result, learning to recognise when the “tongue biting” happens, both in ourselves and others, is essential.
When we start understanding when and why we impression manage and start reducing that behaviour, it not only improves our lives and makes us a much better contributor to the team’s success, but it also has a tremendous effect on our other team members who will notice us modelling that courageous behaviour of engaging and speaking up and be motivated to open up as well.
As we know, Psychological Safety is – unfortunately – not a firm, immutable dynamic that once achieved remains stable for the team for lengthy periods of time. Therefore it stands to reason that Impression Management never does become an extinct set of fear-caused behaviours either. In fact, creating a habit to always remain alert and intervene cognitively when we notice the levels creeping up is essential. This can be accomplished by either using software that helps monitor and alert when impression management occurs — such as our Dashboard — or by learning how to recognise it and curb it ourselves.
Impression Management behaviours are evident if not to those around us, then intensely to our own selves. We know when we’ve stopped ourselves – it feels uncomfortable and it is almost always the result of some form of an internal battle of whether we should or should not contribute. We can use this knowledge to learn to react differently.
Impression Management as the dark side of Psychological Safety – the unwanted negative behaviour in which we fear a loss of status or respect, so to protect against that, we simply bite our lip and do not engage when the team needs it – is the No.1 killer of all the good behaviours we so badly need so we have a healthy and high performing team, such as speaking up and being authentic that it is the number one most important element to focus on if we want high performance and healthy teams.
Next Thursday on the Fundamentals of Psychological Safety Series: The HumanDebt™ – organisational level and team level, so make sure to subscribe so you have it in your inbox.
The 3 “commandments of Psychological Safety” to build high performing teams are: Understand, Measure and Improve.
Read more about our Team Dashboard that measures and improves Psychological Safety at peoplenottech.com, or reach out on our contact page and let’s help your teams become Psychologically Safe, healthy, happy and highly performant.
You can order the book People Before Tech: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age on Amazon.