Impression management

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Goffman’s (1959) Impression Management theory is one of the best-known theories of identity performance. Goffman said that individuals present themselves based on the perceived audience from scene to scene, and our identity presentations are designed and prepared behind these scenes. In short, you try hard to meet the audience’s expectations in order to melt in rather than become a threat. The idea behind Impression Management is that one of the reasons we are not open and vulnerable with each other and create Psychological Safety in teams, is that we as humans are all hardwired to maximise pleasure and avoid pain. Consequently, we are all working hard to mitigate being seen in a certain fashion which we consider negative, and therefore also risky to our wellbeing. We work hard not to give the impression of being either incompetent, ignorant, negative, or unprofessional. Impression Management is a big enabler for Psychological UNsafety. Especially managers have a big challenge here by showing their “real me” and admitting weakness. There are four signs of Impression Management which leaders and team members should watch out for:

  1. We don’t ask questions.
  2. We don’t admit weakness or mistakes.
  3. We don’t offer ideas.
  4. We don’t challenge the status quo.

Asking stupid questions is one of my favourites to create Psychological Safety, but sometimes people mistake this for incompetence… and then you are history.  I often make a joke about myself, on behalf of my perceived aura as the Agile guru. One example is my continuous struggle with my boat. A couple of years ago I bought a boat wreck which I renovated, and to my surprise, we made nice trips with last year. But we had trouble with the motor when it was launched. Five times the motor stopped on five different occasions and each time we had to call for the sea rescue and got towed back to land. This is an example of how to be open with your failures on behalf of a laugh – and a display of Psychological Safety. Had I been an impression manager I would not have talked about these incidents at all, but just told them the boat was fine. So, when you meet impression managers, just tell them they are great the way they are.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.