Psychological Safety And Impression Management

The energy spent on managing impressions in this day and age extends outside of the work context into our everyday social lives thanks to how social media has exacerbated our need to be favourably seen while offering us increasingly more ways to show ourselves. This calls for a larger discussion about the sense of community and whether or not we feel connected to those we broadcast to and whether or not any psychological safety is to forgone or upheld, but that's not the purpose of this article (although, if you read any studies between psychological safety in extended groups enabled by social media please let me know in the comments, I'm curious).

Within the context of work, the idea of "impression management" was first formalised by Leary and Kowalski in 1990 and in the context of what makes teams productive and healthy by our hero, professor Amy Edmondson in her studies, talks and book The Fearless Organization.

The oversimplified idea is that one of the reasons why we are not more willing to be open and vulnerable with each other and create psychological safety in teams, is that we are all hardwired to maximize pleasure and avoid pain and as a result, we are all working hard to mitigate against been seen in a certain fashion which we deem negative and therefore risky to our wellbeing.

We eternally work hard not to give off the impression that we are either Incompetent, Ignorant, Negative or Intrusive.

As we designed and tested our questions for our solution we found that signs of impression management are relatively easy to query for and spot, but when we thought of what would be specific ways to mitigate against them, within the context of our Emotional Intelligence Trainer, we were stumped for what would be the most efficient method.

Leading by example in daring to flaunt lack of knowledge, lack of experience or lack of extreme political correctness was key and we can gently guide team leaders towards creating a habit of exhibiting those behaviours to the team, but what about recognising when impression management happens and coaxing the opposite our of their team? And what about the team becoming savvy enough to notice and change these behaviours themselves?

We decided that this, in particular, was too big a job for the team leader to undertake alone and that perhaps, having everyone involved inter-coaching will serve to reinforce their own good behaviour so we decided to include "leading" questions in the pack to inquire whether or not team members have noticed impression management and have attempted to mitigate against it.

"Have you noticed any colleague who during the retrospective refrained from giving out critique?"

"Have you asked them to express it afterward over a pint?"

"Was anyone in the team on the verge of admitting something in the last month?"

"Are we as a team becoming more open or more reserved?"

"Have you praised any of your colleagues over admitting they never used a tool but being willing to try it?"

"Have you heard any questions amongst your teammates that you thought were too personal?"

"Can you think of a time when something said made you feel defensive before you remembered you are among "family"?"

Questions like the ones above are not open-ended for survey and diagnoses purposes but suggestive and hopefully guiding towards certain desirable outcomes in behaviour.

Because of the nature of work and because of the climate of political correctness in the workplace, "incompetent" and "ignorant" are easier to spot and mitigate against than "negative" and "intrusive". Should we collectively be focused on our people, a debate versus what is desirable openness versus what is bigoted dialogue would be valuable, (and that is the case at societal level as well) but ironically, powerful impression management is at play to dissuade us from it in the enterprise context so it isn't an easy topic to tackle. With that said, affecting even minute amounts of these levers is bound to make a substantial difference in increasing Psychological Safety and therefore, in the team's ability to grow and perform together.

We've then included "Courage.Works" questions such as:

"I can think of at least one time in the past sprint when I admitted I didn't know something"

"Over the last month, I asked a prying question and had to explain it came from caring"

"I've been accused of being sarcastic and ironic and I owned it, there was nothing wrong with it"

because part of the answer to becoming better at being a healthy, functional team is internal - in that we focus on ourselves and set goals to change the rhetorics.

If we can imagine a world where being vulnerable is rewarded because it signals a willingness to learn, where admitting mistakes or unknowns is celebrated and where asking potentially intrusive questions and offering possibly negative comments is desirable and laudable as it signals courage, then we'll start fearing less and helping others change towards bravery as well.

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