In your pursuit of career success, impression management is a critical skill, yet particular workers resist making an effort in this way, reasoning it as a betrayal of their authentic selves, or a demand that they behave like phonies. But impression management—or the conscious control of what and how you communicate so others arrive at the impression you want—doesn’t have to mean being inauthentic or phony. Instead, impression management requires you to have a keen awareness of who you are, what you are capable of, and the true nature of your strengths and weaknesses.
Career advancement depends on receiving respect, recognition, opportunities, support, and, more tangibly, raises and promotions. Unless the people who control your career advancement have positive impressions of you, you’re less likely to achieve the advancement you desire and deserve. However, if you can control the impressions you make, you can also gain a degree of control over the pace and extent of your career advancement.
There are two key elements of effective impression management: self-awareness and the ability to change and adapt how you communicate, in order to achieve your goals.
In the social science literature, self-awareness is often referred to as self-monitoring. Regardless of how you refer to it, this is the character trait of recognizing the impressions others are forming of you. In other words, when you are self-aware, you are attuned to the feelings of the people with whom you are dealing.
For example, when you are in career-critical situations, such as when a manager is tasking someone with an important or a leadership role is assigned—you need to be sure your skills, accomplishments, and potential are on full and effective display. This means you need to be a forceful and convincing advocate for yourself.
Women in the workplace may face certain obstacle when trying to self-promote, which we call the “Goldilocks Dilemma.” If women present themselves as qualified for a particular career-advancing opportunity by conforming to certain stereotypes, like being modest and pleasant, they are likely to be seen as likable but not forceful or decisive enough to be a leader. If, on the other hand, women violate the traditional female stereotype and present themselves in in a more forceful way, being proactive and acting assertively, they may be seen as talented but too abrasive, strident, and unlikable to be a leader.
As a result, a woman’s effective self-promotion depends on the people with whom she is dealing seeing her as neither too “soft” or too “hard,” but “just right.”
Applicable to all individuals trying to balance their impressions on others, being emotionally aware of yourself and your image, to land on this “just right,” is key to impression management.
Shifting gears on communication
Being a good self-monitor is only one part of effective impression management. You also need to be able to change the manner in which you are communicating if you need to change the impressions of other people.
For example, because compensation and promotion decisions generally involve highly subjective judgments, you want to be sure you are in the right space to for their consideration. To do this, you must stand out, be noticed as someone with “promotability,” and seen as someone able to perform at the next level. This means you need to be certain that you are using communication techniques, which shape your desired impression, in a way that highlights your accomplishments and potential. This often requires you to use a variety of strategies—which do not make you seem like you’re play-acting or seeming like a phony, but to emphasize hose particular aspects of you that will form the best impression.
We all have forceful and decisive aspects to our personalities as well as empathetic and concerned aspects. Just as you go to your closet in the morning and take out the clothes appropriate for the day ahead, you must go to your “personality closet” and take out those traits of yourself that will ensure other people will see the side of you you want most want to highlight. Be aware of what are your most decisive characteristics, which will come in handy when a more direct and forceful impression management is required. This will help you reach your objective more efficiently.
If decisiveness is called for, you must be aware of it and present your decisive characteristics. If a sense of inclusiveness and warmth is needed, this is also up to you to provide. Managing your impressions in these ways has nothing to do with being inauthentic, but it has everything to do with allowing other people to see that you are capable of accomplishing what is called for at that moment.
If it still seems as though you are being asked to be someone you are not, keep in mind that if you needed someone with skills or experiences that were not present, you wouldn’t hesitate to find someone who could supply the missing ingredient. Likewise, when the goal is to advance your own career, you shouldn’t hesitate to bring to your personal team those aspects of your personality that are necessary to get that job done.
Andie Kramer and Al Harris are communication and gender bias experts and the authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It. They have spent more than 30 years helping women advance in their careers through writing, speaking, and mentoring.