Impression Management Look Out Week

In this week’s episode, I’ll give you another peek into our thinking and research behind the design of the software, this time when it comes to Impression Management and the emotional intelligence trainer for the team lead.  

For a refresher, Prof. Dr. Amy Edmondson defines Psychological Safety as: “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking…” and identifies impression management as a way of measuring the lack of appetite for that risk and therefore a major impediment to achieving a psychologically safe team. 

I’ve talked about what we do in our software to identify when that happens before in this article but at the time that I wrote it, we only had the right questions to pinpoint the presence of Impression Management and not a very clear idea as to what to do with the detection. At first, we wanted to use the answers we got that suggested team members are averse to interpersonal risk-taking to detract from the overall Psychological Safety score. Say looking at all their other answers and behavioural clues and considering our working categories of Resilience, Flexibility, Transparency, Morale, Courage and Learning a team had a score of 80 (of 100) - should they answer a lot of questions that suggested that impression management is rampant some month, then this score would suddenly severely drop as we are giving those answers more weight. 

How much more weight should questions that assess the in-team risk appetite have, was the question we were faced with in our next design sprint, and as we were debating how to best A/B test methods of deciding on that, it occurred to us that we don’t know internal factors and can’t mitigate for specific team circumstances - say a team just heard that there are severe redundancies on the way - would that make them have an off month in terms of how willing they are to be open? Say the team leader has been off and been replaced by an interim - would the team not be likely to be engaging in far more impression management in front of them? And so on. It ultimately dawned on us that it shouldn’t be us who labels the danger in engaging in this nocive behaviour as we don’t have enough data and it isn’t our place, but the team leader themselves. In other words, learning to monitor whether impression management is happening was a far more important goal in training the EQ of the team leader than it was to have it inform an overall score. The answer was to help them see it, monitor it, and the cleanest way to achieve that was by exposing that data and that is how we came up with a feature on the leader’s dashboard called “Team Health Alarms” that simply displays the overall number of concerning answers the team provided. We want the team leader to keep the question of “How many times have my people avoided looking negative/incompetent/intrusive/ignorant in the last month?” front of mind because they know that the more they have done so, the less open communication, trust and learning there is, and the less productive and psychologically safe they are.  In time, this will train the team leader to identify impression management themselves and notice when it happens in the team’s day-to-day interaction hence mitigate for it. The team leader should think of themselves as a cross between a referee, a doctor and a teacher forever on the look-out for signs that in lieu of being open and behaving like they are comfortable, someone is trying to save face and project a certain image and wonder why that is and what they can do to prevent that behaviour from happening. 

Of course, the team leader can’t be in every interaction the team has, which is where using our solution to gather intel from both reporting and self-reporting is essential in particular as it heightens the team’s awareness to impression management as well and gives them a chance to do that reflection and coaching. Being honest and staying with a vulnerable state is difficult, especially if circumstances change and defense mechanisms are triggered where employees revert to tried and tested neural pathways that demand to say and do anything to protect against looking like we don’t know, can’t do or are causing issues for ourselves or others. 

Thankfully, impression management is one of the topics that is most instinctively comprehensible to anyone when it comes to psychological safety and the reason why we can all immediately understand why being closed off and projecting an image instead of authentic and honest is bad, is because we already have a practice of being on the look-out for that in our personal lives. 

Everyone does this impression management constant watch when it comes to our partners, our friends or our kids. We immediately can tell when either of those is obscuring their true feelings from us, or when they are afraid to be open and we become immediately alerted and try and understand why that is to protect the loving status quo. 

Thinking that a loved one is “hiding something” or simply not engaging openly the way we expect them to, but instead attempting to project a certain image, is causing us immediate distress and that is because we instinctively know the importance of having a strong, intimate connection based on full disclosure. 

This is no different in a team and the mental barrier between “personal” and “work” relationships is the only reason why we don’t routinely focus more on it in the office but once the discourse of the team leader gives us permission to think of our team as the family that it is then we will quickly transfer that watchful and caring state of mind so one of the primary goals of the software is to shape that discourse hence the visual Alarms feature in the team leader’s dashboard

If you’re a team leader reading this (or if you’re part of leadership team where this is a much more rampant phenomenon) consider making this “Impression Management Look Out Week” and be on high alert to identify the signs that either others or yourself are engaging in this behaviour - saying and doing things to appear in a certain light and not because they are meant from the heart and wonder what does this do to the health and the psychological safety of the team. Reach out and tell me what you've found - we love the feedback and the debate.

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