Impression Management – The Fear of Looking Non-Professional

Anti-Impression Management and Clarity practice: I wrote a book called “People Before Tech: Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age

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Over the past two years and several hundreds of articles we kept speaking to you about one of the most recognisable and relatable topics when it comes to Psychological Safety in teams – Impression Management. 

As the “dark side” of Psychological Safety, it is the negative behaviour when team members refrain from speaking up for fear of appearing either incompetent, ignorant, negative or intrusive. 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 the in the team and having low Psychological Safety will indeed lead to more and more Impression Management as well. It’s a majorly damaging vicious circle and it needs curbing. No one is exempt, we all do it in micro-instances of IM 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.

The good news is that there is a simple “cure” to it. A way to exhibit less of this problematic behaviour and therefore become a more Psychologically Safe team is to observe it through introspection. 

It truly is that “easy”. Understanding at an individual level when you engage in it is what makes a world of a difference. It starts with enough awareness to learn to recognise when it happens and then continues with an intention to avoid the behaviour. Once the observation and the intention are in place, the behaviour in itself tends to lessen. This is why one of the most successful plays in our People Not Tech’s Psychological Safety Dashboard Playbook is the “Impression Management Counter” – the teams that do it once or twice see stupendous results and their data shows improved Courage and Openness and far fewer instances of Impression Management. It is entirely possible that the ability to see the data is integral to reinforce their behavioural change though so what we advise the teams who have to “do it by hand” i.e. don’t have access to our software is to not also devise a way to measure and have accountability to ensure it sticks. 

You can find some of those articles here for a brush up:

Why Do We Impression Manage?(article)

Ignore Impression Management at Your Own Peril (article)

Impression Management Won’t Help You Keep Your Job (article)

5 Tips for Lowering Impression Management (video)

Ignore Impression Management at Your Own Peril (article)

The 5th Impression Management Type: Fear of Looking Unprofessional (video)

One thing that struck us again of late (shoutout to our two amazing American clients who have highlighted it again last week) as we work on changing the perception of the importance of doing the people work to lower the HumanDebt, is that there is yet another type of Impression Management to add to the four commonly accepted ones above: the fear of looking unprofessional.

It is in a way, the combination of not wanting to look incompetent or intrusive but it is also its own “animal” as it takes on various incarnations. It not only holds back individual team members from admitting their willingness to engage with the human to-do’s, but it seems to be especially prevalent in leaders and it stops them from doing what’s right by their people. 

It looks like these reasons/assumptions and some may tell themselves they are valid, but really it’s all Impression Management and it is there simply to avoid having to say “We need to take on the hard EQed conversations, nothing else is more important” because they fear they will look unprofessional for doing so. 

“We don’t have time” – We discussed this multiple times, as the most common excuse it is also the easiest to dismantle when we have the courage to keep it real and get to the core of what really matters.

“Developers/engineers/scientists are not touchy/feely or emotional” – This particular assumption is really insidious as it plays off the collection of other individual Impression Management instances where people don’t want to look unprofessional and therefore claim they are devoid of emotion or feeling and end up “doing the robot”. Leaving aside the absurdity of the claim -as no particular job title is exempt from being human and a Java developer has as intense of feelings as an opera singer-, the misconception that we ought to be emotionless to be professional is a difficult one to shift that has ramifications in every way we engage at work – our inability to be courageous by modelling vulnerability or admitting failure, the lack of openness, etc.

“People would hate doing X (insert people-work be it coaching, an intervention, measuring, etc) and feel it’s a waste of time” – A variation of the overarching time complaint, this one also packs an assumption that it wouldn’t be well-liked which is not only patronising but plain wrong if we look at the data of the feedback people leave after the people-work once they finally get to do it. Furthermore, the time complaint in itself, when you unpack it, demonstrates itself to be a cry for help and a need to discuss an unattainable state where there is overworking or too high of pressure, and a lot of Impression Management too. 

“If we ask our teams to do these things we will look like we are focusing on the wrong stuff such as this fluff when they are under pressure” – This stems from simply not having done the work to truly internalise the importance of the people work both at an individual and an organisational level. Incidentally in organisations that are people-first, this particular complaint never comes up. 

“No one is here to make friends, an emotional bond is not necessary to doing their work” – An immense misconception that is likely behind the deplorable state of the definition of “engagement”, the idea that we are not meant to be friends or even friendly as that is unprofessional is an unchallenged antiquated assumption and is consistently debunked when looking at high performing teams who are indeed stupendously close. Having a tight emotional bond leads to higher empathy, better willingness to listen and learn, increased collaboration incentive and so much more. If anything, we should eternally strive to have more of it. 

“We already did some human work/bought the other piece of software, we can’t overwhelm our people” – No one genuinely believes the people work is a once-and-done tick-boxing exercise and we all really know we need more of it at all times if we’re truly honest, but when leaders say that what they really mean is that they are once again, afraid of raising yet another human topic. 

There are countless more examples of the rhetorics that leaders or organisation’s representatives use when they actually are impression managing against looking unprofessional and they each can and should be easy to dismantle once they learn to catch themselves when they start using any of these excusings to get out of the people work. 

For the week ahead, let’s be honest with ourselves and each other and get closer to Psychological Safety by limiting our Impression Management and we’ll all be better off for it. 


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 or reach out at and let’s help your teams become Psychologically Safe, healthy, happy and highly performant.

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