Let’s All Stop Impression Managing!

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As many of you know, my book “People Before Tech: Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age” is due to be released in the next two weeks in Europe and a couple of months in the US so you’ll hear about it a lot, (apologies in advance if “too much”) but unfortunately there’s no getting around the need to underline its existence. I’m only really warning you all because I’ve resolved to think of my subscribers as much more of a team and stop “impression managing against sounding salesy” in our team. 

What does that mean? Well, over the last couple of weeks several people said “Oh I had been reading your stuff for a while but I didn’t really know you made software” and the reality is that I’ve been so careful to avoid any virtual “there she goes again, on and on about the team solution they build” eye-rolls, that I have -at times- left it out. Needless to say, while those tactics make me feel better about myself, as I don’t identify as a salesperson, it also means I deprive our team of PS warriors of any “stories from the trenches” and even worse, I may keep some actual teams out there from having a better, healthier and happier work dynamic. 

So I’ll try and stop doing that and catch myself when I feel tempted to impression manage on this topic and instead be clear, open and honest – yes I wrote a book, yes we make a Psychological Safety solution that helps teams. That’s who we are, that’s how we learn. 

That’s the “beauty” of Impression management recognition. Once you learn to “see it” you can recognise fearful patterns of all kinds even outside of the classic “fear of looking ignorant, incompetent, negative or intrusive”. And once you recognise them -in yourself and others- you can start avoiding them. 

If we think of impression management as the umbrella term for most of the negative behaviours that hurt the team’s ability to be Psychologically Safe because team members refrain from fully engaging because of a perceived potential loss to their self-image, then we start to understand why it resonates with so many of us. 

We all do it. Every day. At work but also outside of it. 

Not all impression management is negative, avoidable or problematic, there is a wealth of efforts we are all willing to expand to uphold an image of self we feel wedded to and we are protective of that image to where we carefully select how we come across to others be it online on social media or in everyday interactions and if that is done out of vanity rather than genuine and limiting fear, it isn’t uncommon or necessarily problematic. Equally, when we engage in “social impression management” for lack of a better term, it’s an image curation exercise nothing more and it is in groups we do not share a common goal with, aka not a team. By contrast, when we equally curate interactions at work, and when we exercise restraint born out of fear of loss of status, we deprive the team of our input and therefore lessen its chances of achieving that common goal. 

Those of you familiar with my theory of HumanDebt™ know that I include all worthwhile conversations that seem to have regrettably been abandoned in the workplace in it and the evident examples are around employee wellbeing, happiness, etc but here’s one that will ring a bell – remember “impostor syndrome”? An immensely “popular” topic since it was first coined in the early 80s with some resurgence after a popular study in 2013, these days, it’s all but a forgotten term or one that seems to be confined to gender inequality topics and had it not been for the enlightened minds of the likes of Michelle Obama or Gitte Klitgaard who at times speaks about it, it would have been completely gone. 

That’s a clear example of HumanDebt, because had we kept talking about it in the workplace, then we would have been able to see how it is essentially classic impression management: the fear of appearing incompetent comprised of a bevvy of other micro-fears – that of appearing vulnerable, ignorant, unworthy, imperfect, insufficient, “too emotional’”, “unprofessional”, etc. 

The truth is that Impression Management is a key subject that touches on so many big themes that make up the HumanDebt – vulnerability as the desirable manifestation of courage, trust as a team dynamic, the need to offer permission to fail, etc and that in today’s environment, in the reluctant and bewildered sudden move to hybrid and remote, where the paradigm of work is in flux, all of those themes have become urgent and we can no longer ignore it but we can -and should!- start working on it at the team and individual context and begin with understanding and avoiding Impression Management. 

Any group, be it professional or personal can use effective anti-Impression-Management techniques. The most effective piece of CBT-like action we ever constructed and employed with the teams we work with, bar none is the “Catch Yourself Counter” that starts training people against engaging in IM – when people learn to recognise their fear-based-avoidant-behaviour they tend to stop it or -at least diminish it- and that self-awareness applies to any human in any context and can be applied to both themselves and those around them. 

At work, every time team members engage in Impression Management, when they bite their lip, when they hesitate and remain silent when they stop themselves from saying anything at all because of any of the fears above, the team misses out. Whatever it was. However, it would have been received. And every time it happens, it demonstrates a lack of Psychological Safety in the team that only gets bigger with each new instance. IM is the biggest killer of PS and this is a time when we can’t afford the lack of Psychological Safety and we can’t be anything other than open wide and honest considering the big changes ahead and our collective state of mind.

Lastly – here’s some straight-up advice devoid of “what if they take it the wrong way” fear: look at the ”Impression Management Catch Yourself Counter” we made or read about it in the book – either come talk to us and use the measurement and play in the actual software -or if you’re an existent client prioritise it as soon as you see your Impression Management alerts go up!- or read and watch our free resources on here and YouTube and create your own “manual” one by organising human interventions with your team so they start recognising the fearful patterns and commence avoiding them. Some masks we need, some masks we should drop as fast as we can. 

Let’s all stop Impression Managing so we do (and feel!) better!


The 3 “commandments of Psychological Safety” to build high performing teams are: UnderstandMeasure and Improve

Read more about our Team Dashboard that measures and improves Psychological Safety at www.peoplenottech.com or reach out at contact@peoplenottech.com and let’s help your teams become Psychologically Safe, healthy, happy and highly performant

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