We all engage in impression management - trying to put our best foot forward and "fit in" in social situations. Two psychological constructs address how people "perform" in social situations, and there are subtle, but important, differences.
The first construct is called Self-Monitoring, and it is the ability to read social cues and alter one's behavior in order to try to "fit in" to a specific social situation. Often the high self-monitor controls his or her behavior in order to impress others or to receive others' social approval. Low self-monitors, on the other hand, are less concerned with self-presentation and are more likely to express their true attitudes and feelings, regardless of the social circumstances (think about someone who expresses their true political feelings regardless of who they are interacting with, versus the high self-monitor who sizes up the crowd [liberal vs. conservative?] before sharing, or not sharing, political opinions).
The second construct is called Social Control, and is skill in social acting. Persons high on social control are also able to control and manage their impressions, but they are not as highly affected by the social situation. Instead, the high social control individual possesses a social self-confidence and poise that allows him or her to be effective in a wide variety of social situations. Instead of the high self-monitor's tendency to "blend in," the person high in Social Control tends to stand out in a positive manner.
Our research has found that individuals who possess a great deal of Social Control, and who are also expressive and outgoing, are more likely to be perceived as potential leaders, and to lead social groups. High self-monitors are also likely to be chosen as leaders because they represent the "prototype" of a group leader (because they fit in).
One problem with the high self-monitor is that in the desire to fit in with the group and gain their approval, the person may become a sort of "social chameleon," changing attitudes, opinions, and feelings in an effort to fit in and be accepted. From a leadership perspective, this can mean the leader is highly sensitive and responsive to the social climate (and the leader changes views depending on the crowd, and may appear "wishy-washy"). Socially, the extremely high self-monitor fits in, but we never get a sense of who the social chameleon really is or what he or she believes in and stands for.
On the other hand, the person who is extremely high on social control moves confidently forward, and works to bring others along with him or her. The downside of too much social control, however, can be a sort of arrogance born of the supreme self-confidence that the individual possesses. Social control thus needs to be balanced with a sensitivity to others, and consideration of their opinions and feelings.
So, where do you fall on these two dimensions?
Here are some sample items from the Self-Monitoring Scale (agreeing suggests high self-monitoring):
• In different situations and with different people, I often act like very different persons.
• Even if I am not enjoying myself, I often pretend to be having a good time.
• When I am uncertain how to act in a social situation, I look to the behavior of others for cues.
Here are some sample items from the Social Control scale (again, agreeing suggests high social control):
• I can fit in with all types of people, young and old, rich and poor.
• People from different backgrounds seem to feel comfortable around me.
• I can very easily adjust to being in almost any social situation.
Riggio, Ronald (1987). The Charisma Quotient. New York: Dodd Mead.
Riggio, Ronald, Riggio, H., Salinas, C., & Cole, E. (2003). The role of social and emotional communication skills in leader emergence and effectiveness. Group Dynamics, 7, 83-103.
Snyder, Mark (1987). Public Appearances/Private Realities: The Psychology of Self-Monitoring. San Francisco: Freeman.
Snyder, Mark & Gangestad, S. (2000). Self-monitoring: Appraisal and reappraisal. Psychological Bulletin, 126(4), 530-555.