What is Impression Management and How to Master it?

impression management

Whenever you’re up to something important — be it the final interview round or a meeting with your boyfriend’s Nana — you want to make a great impression. In other words: You want to present a certain version of yourself: More likable, friendly, or professional, depending on the context. And that’s what impression management is all about. 

What is Impression Management?

Self-presentation, also called impression management, is our conscious and unconscious efforts to shape how others perceive us. We often adjust our behaviors, based on the social context and the people we’re around, to appear our “better selves”. 

The concept of Impression management comes from a sociology professor, Erving Goffman. In his work “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, Goffman analyzes human behaviors through the lens of the “public self”. He examines all the conscious and subconscious efforts we make to conform to the expectations and norms of society (words, actions, body language, facial expression, etc.)

The main premise: Like actors on stage, most of us present a “character” to others, rather than reveal our true selves, to achieve different goals. For example, appear more likable, professional, or interesting. 

Here are several everyday examples of impression management: 

  • You have an important job interview. So you go for smart casual attire instead of a pair of baggy jeans and a hoodie that you wear most days and tie your long hair in a sleek updo. 
  • It’s your first day at work and you’re asked to make an introduction to several teams. Your elevator pitch to senior management will focus more on some big business accomplishments, while a version for the team might talk more about your personality or leadership style. 
  • You’re in a Zoom meeting with a client, maintaining eye contact, smiling, and nodding encouragingly. But in reality, you’re dealing with a very bad headache and would rather crawl into bed. 

Why Do People Use Impression Management?

When done right, impression management techniques help you advance your agenda. A good degree of flattery can help you broker a better deal with a vendor. A confident posture and a firm handshake can make you appear more trustworthy to a new business partner. 

Everyone — from politicians and entertainers to shop assistants and clerks — curate their behaviors to get better at their jobs. 

Because here’s the thing: We’re more likely to cooperate with people who fit with the social norms. Studies suggest that evolution has made us value different unwritten expectations and feel frustrated when people don’t comply with these. Breaking a norm — like giving a rude reply to a customer or showing up under-dressed for a job interview — can create mounting disapproval. 

In fact, many of us value a good reputation (as a reward for our good behaviors) more than financial incentives. Statistically, people are more likely to participate in various social initiatives when their participation will be made public versus doing so for tangible gains (like a cash payout or a free T-shirt). 

In other words: We care a lot about our reputation because it helps us gain greater acceptance from others and get their “buy-in” for whatever it is we have in mind. 

4 Positive Impression Management Strategies To Try (and 3 to Avoid) 

Impression management comes in handy in different situations — from job interviewing and networking to salary negotiations and day-to-day project management. Goffman identified 7 different impression management techniques people use both consciously and unconsciously. 

Four of them are great for positive impression management and the other three should be used with some caution.

Try: Exemplification 

As the adage goes: Good leaders lead by example. You’re not just talking the talk, but strutting the walk by showing dedication, integrity, and responsibility daily. When there’s a team fire ranging, you show up and help fix things. If you ask others to be candid, you’re also very transparent in your communication. 

In other words: You exemplify desired shared values and comply with the social norms — and this makes people like and trust you more. 

Avoid: Excuses 

Excuses are a common tactic for damage control. Instead of taking the blame, you come up with some “circumstances beyond your control” to justify your recent behavior without losing reputational brownie points. For example, when asked why you’re looking for a new job, you tell a sob story about how the management never saw your vast potential. 

As a short-term strategy, excuses can help you avoid poor situational judgment. But as an ongoing crutch in impression management, it paints you as an unreliable, immature, and self-pitying person — the opposite qualities of what employers value in workers.  

Try: Ingratiation

Flattery and sweet-talk are a common impression management tactic. In fact, hearing sweet talk activates the segments of our brain responsible for pleasure — and sincere praise often has the double effect. 

By exchanging compliments, favors, and just some off-hand positive remarks, you can build better relationships with your colleagues. Strong relationships at work often lead to higher personal performance, greater work satisfaction, and a better degree of collaboration. 

Avoid: Supplication

Picture a typical Damsel in Distress trope: The person is so painfully pitiable that you just can’t avoid helping them. That’s supplication in action — getting people to do things in your favor through sympathy. 

Sure, you get the support you need. But your barrage of pleas will eventually land on a deaf ear or worse — reach the management, who’ll start questioning your competency levels. So it’s best to avoid this move. 

Try: Associations 

Every day you share facts about yourself: your personality, upbringing, friends, education, hobbies, and interests. All of these things lead to certain associations. Graduated from an Ivy League School? Wow, you must be smart. Worked as a senior engineer at Google? The candidate has some solid engineering chops. 

In an interview, networking event, or casual water cooler conversation, you create an impression by sharing curated indirect facts about yourself. That’s a good tactic to indicate your strongest competencies without openly saying that you’re “great at this.” 

Avoid: Conformity 

Conformity means that you’re in full sync with the rules. You act like everyone else does: Wear the same tie, drink the same brand of tea, and otherwise “slot” with the people around you.

Conformity isn’t inherently bad. After all, you follow all the social rules. But it paints you as a bland person — and no one likes to feel “forgettable”. 

Try: Self-Promotion  

When the situation calls for it, you’re not afraid to shine your strengths — be it doing the best presentations, excelling in data analytics, or knowing all the best vendors in town. A healthy degree of self-promotion at work brands you as an expert in your field and lets others know your value for an organization. 

That said, self-promotion should come in moderation. No one likes a blatant show-off or self-proclaimed know-it-all. So save the talk about some of your best accomplishments and most marketable skills until the next job interview or annual performance review session. 

Final Thoughts  

When done right, impression management can get you closer to your goals — be it a coveted job interview or a promotion in your current role. The above strategies also help you build better relationships with your colleagues — a chief factor of high job satisfaction and engagement. That said, not every one of your moves should be a “power move” to advance your agenda. Being you is just enough in many social situations! 


  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

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