I’ve narrowed the advice from the field of impression management down to the minimum number that can help you work toward your benefit in a variety of situations. They share the feature of intending to help you show off the skills you have, not cover up for your deficits. In fact, the more you put these into practice, the more you can actually expand your skill set and increase your ability to impress, and more important, perform.
There are practical and emotional benefits to using the right kind of impression management strategies at the right time: According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Chinese management professor Guo-hua Huang and associates, when employees worried about losing their jobs put in extra effort to impress their supervisors, not only did the supervisors rate them higher, the employees actually felt less anxious.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at each of the five key strategies for managing the impressions you seek to create in similar clutch situations:
1. Be enthusiastic (or at least seem to be).
Whether it’s extra work you’re going to have to perform or having to put in more time and energy than you bargained for, what's your first reaction? Do you complain, say why you can’t possibly do it, or passive aggressively try to sabotage the situation? Think about what you might do when your boss says you'll need to finish a project several days before the initial deadline. The request strikes you as not only unrealistic but unfair, and definitely inconvenient. You've had your next few evenings of watching TV or going out all planned, and now you'll have to give that up.
Apart from situations in which a boss is outright exploitative, and assuming that this is a one-time or at least rare request, coming back with the list of reasons why this isn’t going to work for you is not the best strategy. Practically speaking, you’ll probably end up having to concede to the request anyhow.
In terms of impressions, you’re going to look like a whiner if your first reaction is to balk. If your plans are truly unchangeable, hold off before you outright refuse. You can still decline, but if you phrase your refusal as true regret instead of outrage, your boss will be more accepting of your response. If you end up having to do the work anyhow, then your complaining will only have sown the seeds of annoyance in your supervisor.
Similarly, if your romantic partner suggests that you spend an afternoon at the ball game when you really and truly hate sports, your first reaction might be to scream “No way” or otherwise indicate your displeasure. However, if the chances are good that you’ll end up going anyhow, that initial reaction would only have made you look unsympathetic and uncaring. According to equity theory, partners attempt to establish a balance between what each one gives and gets out of the relationship. By going along with your partner’s request on this occasion, you’ll not only make a better impression, but also increase the chances that your wishes will be reciprocated another time.
2. Show respect.
Without our realizing it, we communicate to the other people just how much we value them. Whether it’s the words you speak or your tone of voice, you’re constantly providing cues. At work, you show respect to your co-workers by listening to their ideas and honoring their desire for privacy and dignity (as well as their right to have their food in the communal refrigerator left untouched). At home or with your romantic partner, you similarly show respect by listening to their end of the conversation and allowing them to express their preferences about what you do as a couple or family.
At work, being disrespectful to anyone, even if it’s the person who services your coffee machine, can get you in trouble. Your boss will not enjoy hearing, time and time again, about how rude and insensitive you were to your co-workers. At home or in your close relationships, even the people who love you will feel frustrated and annoyed if you continue to put their needs second to your own. Respect is a basic building block not only of impression management, but of all good relationships.
3. Be open to new ideas.
Being willing to entertain someone else’s point of view, even if it’s diametrically opposed to your own, helps create the impression that you’re a person who is fair, even-minded, and mature. Two-year-olds really hate it when someone crosses their will. We allow them to indulge in a certain degree of tantrum-throwing only because we know they don’t have the emotional capacity to cope with being thwarted in their goals. We expect adults to be able to see that someone else besides them might be right on a given occasion.
A co-worker, teammate, or romantic partner might come up with a completely ridiculous idea which you instantly see as unworkable. Someone wants to go out to eat on the spur of the moment to a restaurant that requires reservations and it’s a restaurant that you really don’t think you’ll like at all. Now, it’s possible that the restaurant is a lot better than you expect (which is why it’s always crowded), but instead of just refusing to consider it, you could go along for the ride and let fate take its course. Chances are you’ll be unable to eat there anyhow, but if for some reason there’s an opening, perhaps you’ll find that the online reviews were wrong and the food is really terrific. By saying no right away, however, you’ll likely come off as closed minded, and you might even miss out on an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.
4. Make every effort to be positive.
As you’ve learned already, being a naysayer carries with it a number of risks. Turning this around, this next tip makes explicit the importance of being someone who smiles more than frowns. Having a pleasant look on your face instead of a growl communicates to the outside world that you’re a nice person. This, in turn, makes you seem more approachable to others, adding to your positive impression quotient. Over time, a pleasant facial expression can pay off in your having fewer frown lines. As Coco Chanel once said, “'Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.”
Of course there are times when a serious expression, or even a frown, is appropriate for the occasion. You can’t go around with a huge smile on your face at all times or people will think you’re flaky or insincere. However, there’s a big difference between a frown that conveys a critical message to the outside world and one that expresses gravitas.
Apart from your facial expression, being positive means that you cheer people on when they do well, and stay away from creating judgment zones wherever you go. By looking for the silver lining, even in a glum situation, you’ll become a reinforcing presence in the life of others and they will, of course, want to have you around.
5. Realize that it’s not all about you.
We all have a healthy dose of narcissism. However, people who are constantly focusing on their inner states instead of the needs of others run the risk of seeming (and being) selfish and self-centered.
Not all narcissists become disliked. University of Munster psychologist Albrecht Küfner and his colleagues (2013) found that people high in narcissistic personality tendencies who came across as assertive were liked more by others than narcissists who projected a confrontational and aggressive stance. Returning to the above points about the importance of being positive, this study suggests that as long as you can temper your narcissism with a generally can-do attitude, you’ll manage to get your own way and have others like you in the process.
Making yourself the center of a situation that involves many others with their own needs and points of view can be counter-productive. You’ll be less, not more, likely to be have others feel good about you and therefore less likely to accomplish your desired goals.
There are many complexities involved in making a positive impression, but by following these five tips, you’ll be on your way to having others like you more, further boosting your self-esteem and, ultimately, your overall fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Huang, G., Zhao, H., Niu, X., Ashford, S. J., & Lee, C. (2013). Reducing job insecurity and increasing performance ratings: Does impression management matter?. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 98(5), 852-862. doi:10.1037/a0033151
Küfner, A. P., Nestler, S., & Back, M. D. (2013). The two pathways to being an (un‐)popular narcissist. Journal Of Personality, 81(2), 184-195. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00795.x