Although most organizations are interested in measuring what employees actually produce at work, people’s career success is as much a function of how they perform, as the reputation they are able to maintain. So, while the notion that one’s accomplishments should speak for themselves is pretty romantic, anyone who lives by that mantra will probably be at a political disadvantage in comparison to the majority of their colleagues who are actively engaged in managing impressions and “faking good” at work.
It’s quite appealing to think that our reputation at work may improve if we act in authentic ways or just be ourselves. However, the reality is that most of our colleagues, as well as our boss, are far more likely to prefer the socially desirable, polite, civilized, and censored version of our personality. The uninhibited, unfiltered, and unrepressed version of ourselves, is someone who perhaps four or five people have learned to love, or at least tolerate.
This is most evident when we inspect the behavior and reputation of leaders. The world would be better off if those who hold power would be more capable of self-censoring, spending more time to consider how their actions may impact others, and controlling their entitled, self-centered, and egotistical impulses. If only we stopped picking leaders on their self-belief and self-confidence and select them instead on the basis of their self-control and self-awareness, we would see a systematic reduction in unethical and toxic behaviors and an increase in prosocial and ethical leadership.
We all need to manage impressions to get ahead at work. Scientific research provides compelling evidence that behaving in ways that conform to what others find acceptable and rewarding to deal with, is a relevant dimension of talent. Imagine two candidates being considered for a job interview. They are both asked, “Do you enjoy working with others?” One of them says “Not really, I find most people annoying and much rather work by myself.” The other answers, “Of course, I love people, and I have a natural instinct for collaboration. Few things make me happier than unleashing the potential of my colleagues through the synergies of great teamwork.” More often than not, you can expect the second answer to land you the job. However, more often than not, you can expect the first answer to be more honest.
But impression management is a strong signal of people’s willingness to display good organizational citizenship, including social desirability and emotional intelligence, be considerate and civil to their colleagues, and make an effort to control their own grumpiness and unrewarding personality traits. (Yes, we all have some.)
In a way, the office-less age in which most people work remotely, is a blessing for those who dislike the idea of showing off or self-promoting, perhaps because they are indeed more honest and direct (qualities we should no doubt appreciate in others). Since the removal of the office makes it harder for people to meet, gossip, politic, and put on a “performance” for others, you would expect employers to focus more on actual job performance rather than the theatrics of job performance. As a colleague who was clearly used to managing impressions at work lamented when the office shut and everyone was sent home to work said: “But without the office, how will I pretend to work?”
In reality, it would be a mistake to assume that organizations will automatically learn to measure people’s output, or make their workplaces more meritocratic (and less nepotistic), just because the office is extinguished. Much like in other areas of politics, if you think it’s beneath you to play the game you will probably be outplayed by others who are still managing impressions.
They do this by making others aware of their value by:
- identifying who those significant stakeholders are (usually, people who are their seniors)
- establishing and maintaining frequent contact, good rapport, and personal connections with them (of course, over digital channels, but leveraging mostly one on one exchanges)
- requesting frequent feedback from them, to both make them feel valued, and adjust behaviors according to their feedback
- showing interest in them, and making themselves useful (by figuring out how to help them look better, particularly if they are the boss)
Your political capital will also depend on what others make of your performance while the office is empty. This requires a more delicate balancing act because if you suddenly start self-promoting on Zoom or Teams, you will put people off. Also, there are much better ways to improve your image at work than to focus on advertising your achievements or celebrating yourself.
The most important is ensuring that your colleagues and coworkers know that you actually care about them. Since most people are stressed or at least somewhat disrupted by the pandemic, they are generally less focused on others than during normal or good times. It’s much harder to manage your relationships with others when you are already struggling to manage yourself.
This creates a big opportunity. You can be the one who stands out from the rest by scheduling regular check-in calls with colleagues, deepening your connections with others, and building new valuable relationships at work, perhaps focusing on people that you historically neglected because they did not live nearby or work in the same physical office.
And of course, if you are doing this in the most sincere ways, because you actually care about your colleagues, that’s even better. Just keep in mind that there’s little benefit to actually caring for them if you fail to express it and they are not aware of it. Because what matters most for your career reputation is what others think of you, rather than what you think of yourself, or what you think of them.