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The Dangerous Art of Impression Management

How to balance authenticity, tact, and common sense.

Let’s face it. We all try to impress others — to put our best foot forward, to try to be a witty conversationalist, and to get people to like us. Impression management is very important in the development and maintenance of social relationships, and it is critically important to effectiveness as a leader.

But success in social relationships and success as a leader requires a delicate balance of impression management. We need to monitor and control how we appear to others, but we also want to be straightforward and “authentic.”

Here are some guidelines for how to manage the impression you make on others in an authentic way:

1. Know Thyself. Self-awareness is critically important in successful impression management and in being an authentic person. Sociologist Erving Goffman proposed a “dramaturgical theory” that stated that we are actually just a conglomeration of the different roles that we play. It is very important, however, to have a sense of self — Who are you? What do you value? What do you stand for? — to avoid becoming just a “social chameleon” who simply tries to fit in and go along with the crowd.

2. Be Thoughtful and Prudent. We need to engage our brains when interacting with others. We must be effective listeners, trying to understand others’ points of view. We need to think about the consequences of our statements and our actions. Self-disclosure is an important part of forming a good relationship with others, but we need to be careful to not disclose too much information too fast, and always consider how the other person is reacting to what we tell them.

3. Master Your Emotions. Nothing creates a negative impression faster than an inappropriate emotional outburst. Emotions are important in connecting with others, but we need to regulate and moderate our emotions and our emotional displays. Negative affect — anger, irritation, disgust — should always be displayed carefully and strategically. For leaders, it is critically important to show emotional restraint but to subtly let others know when you are pleased or displeased.

4. Observe Rules of Etiquette. There is a range of social rules or “norms” that tell us how we should behave in various social situations. To maintain a positive impression, it is critical to follow these social norms and demonstrate that we have manners and know how to behave in different situations. Being polite is always a good impression management strategy.

5. Have Courage and Conviction. There are times when you need to be socially bold and courageous. Take the initiative to start up a conversation with a stranger, to ask a good question, or to aid someone in distress. In addition, it is important to stand up for principles that you believe in, particularly in positions of leadership. Most people will respect you for being true to your convictions.

6. Be Positive. There is a wealth of research that supports the importance of positive affect in making good impressions. A smile and positive energy is always better than a negative tone. Leaders who are optimistic and display positive affect are rated as more effective by their followers.

Effective and authentic impression management is not easy. Like all social skills, it is something that needs to be developed and practiced continually.

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