If You Don't Manage Your Professional Image, Others Will

Jan. 1, 2020
BOSTON - There are plenty of books telling you how to dress for success or control your body language, yet keeping on top of your personal traits is only part of the story of managing your professional image, says Harvard Business School (HBS) Assist
Professional Image, Others Will
BOSTON - There are plenty of books telling you how to dress for success or control your body language, yet keeping on top of your personal traits is only part of the story of managing your professional image, says Harvard Business School (HBS) Assistant Professor Laura Roberts. 
Laura Roberts is an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School.
(Photo: HBS Working Knowledge)"People are constantly observing your behavior and forming theories about your competence, character and commitment, which are rapidly disseminated throughout your workplace. It is only wise to add your voice in framing others' theories about who you are and what you can accomplish," Roberts advises. In "Creating a Positive Professional Image," an article authored by Mallory Stark, a HBS career information librarian and published in the HBS online newsletter, Working Knowledge, Roberts shares some of the insights that her research has yielded. "Your professional image is the set of qualities and characteristics - such as trustworthiness, caring, humility and capability - that represent perceptions of your competence and character as judged by your key constituents [i.e., clients, superiors, subordinates, colleagues]," Roberts asserts. "It is important to distinguish between the image you want others to have of you and the image that you think people currently have of you." She suggests that taking personal control and proactively developing one's own professional image is critical. Begin by self-assessing strengths and weaknesses, then assess the difference between what you want others to say about you in your absence (your desired professional image) and what you are concerned others might say about you in your absence (your undesired or perceived professional image). Listen carefully to both direct and indirect feedback from others, and consider how those signals shape your "perceived" professional image. Determine which signals need your consideration and attention, and which bear no threat at all. Keys to Creating a Professional Image Be the author of your own identity. Take a strategic, proactive approach to managing your image:
* Identify your ideal state.
* What are the core competencies and character traits you want people to associate with you? 
* Which of your social identities do you want to emphasize and incorporate into your workplace interactions, and which would you rather minimize?
Assess your current image, culture and audience:
* What are the expectations for professionalism? 
* How do others currently perceive you?
Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for image change:
* Do you care about others' perceptions of you? 
* Are you capable of changing your image? 
* Are the benefits worth the costs? (Cognitive, psychological, emotional, physical effort)
Use strategic self-presentation to manage impressions and change your image:
*Employ appropriate traditional and social identity-based impression management strategies. 
* Pay attention to the balancing act: Build credibility while maintaining authenticity.
Manage the effort you invest in the process:
* Monitoring others' perceptions of you. 
* Monitoring your own behavior.
* Strategic self-disclosure.
* Preoccupation with proving worth and legitimacy
(Source: Laura Roberts, Harvard Business School) "In the increasingly diverse, 21st-century workplace, people face a number of complex challenges to creating a positive professional image," continues Roberts. The gap between one's desired professional image and the image others perceive can be widened by three types of image threats: predicaments, devaluation and illegitimacy. Any or all can compromise or impair the perception of your image by others regarding your technical competence, social competence, character, commitment and motives. The fairness of these hurdles is a separate question beyond this discussion, but make no mistake here: Each poses a threat to creating in others a positive perception of your professional image. For instance, a mistake (predicament) that one has made in the past that becomes public knowledge can erode how others perceive you. The negative stereotyping that people do (devaluation) can alter how others view your professional abilities. Some view working mothers as being less committed to their profession and less loyal to their employing organizations. Others view some professions, such as car salesmen, as generally being less professional than others. Both devalue.  On the other hand, positive stereotyping can also be a challenge to creating a positive professional image if someone is perceived as being unable to live up to the favorable expectations (illegitimacy) of their social identity groups. Examples include female medical students and residents who are often mistaken for nurses or orderlies and challenged by patients who do not believe they are legitimate physicians, or fresh-faced young brokers with a brand-new MBA who are sometimes perceived as being too young and inexperienced to handle the fortunes of the grey hair, blue hair or no hair demographic. "It is important to distinguish between the image you want others to have of you and the image that you think people currently have of you."

"Despite the added complexity of managing stereotypes while also demonstrating competence, character, and commitment, there is promising news for creating your professional image," explains Roberts. "Impression management strategies can help improve how others perceive you by enabling you to explain predicaments, counter devaluation, and demonstrate legitimacy." 

She notes that people manage impressions through their non-verbal behavior (appearance, demeanor), verbal cues (vocal pitch, tone, and rate of speech, grammar and diction, disclosures), and demonstrative acts (citizenship, job performance).

People can also use social identity-based impression management (SIM) to create a positive professional image, Roberts says. SIM refers to the process of strategically presenting yourself in a manner that communicates the meaning and significance you associate with your social identities. Think of it as building on your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. 

Using verbal and non-verbal cues to establish aspects of your identity that are personally and/or socially valued is one such strategy. Conversely, use verbal and non-verbal cues to suppress other aspects of your identity that are personally and/or socially devalued, in an attempt to distance yourself from negative stereotypes.

Successful impression management, when effectively managed, can generate a number of important personal and organizational benefits, including career advancement, client satisfaction, better work relationships (trust, intimacy, avoiding offense), group cohesiveness, a more pleasant organizational climate and a more fulfilling work experience. 

When you present yourself in a manner that is both true to self and valued and believed by others, impression management can yield a host of favorable outcomes for you, your team and your organization, as it is perceived as credible and authentic. 

"Rather than adopting one strategy wholesale," Roberts adds, "Most people employ a variety of strategies for managing impressions of their professional image."

(Sources: HBS Working Knowledge)

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