Impression management (IM) is the process by which people attempt to influence the images that others have of them. That is, IM describes the many strategies that individuals use in an attempt to be seen in a certain way or to create a particular impression in others’ minds. Related concepts include self-presentation, influence tactics, organizational politics, and the careerist orientation to work. In studying IM, researchers typically label those who seek to influence others’ impressions of them as actors and label those whose impressions are being influenced as targets.
Most researchers argue that IM is a common phenomenon and a fundamental part of human interaction. IM behaviors often reflect a basic human motive to be viewed favorably (and to avoid being viewed unfavorably) by others. However, in some instances, IM is not used in an effort to be perceived positively per se, but to influence others to view one in a specific way or to influence others to respond in a certain way (e.g., through the use of intimidation). There is some disagreement among IM researchers regarding the authenticity of the impressions that people convey. In what has been labeled the restrictive view of IM, a few researchers have narrowly defined the construct as an attempt at interpersonal manipulation through the creation of a false or untrue image of oneself. By and large, though, most scholars subscribe to what has been labeled the expansive view of IM. According to this viewpoint, while the impressions that individuals seek to create can be false, most often they are not. The expansive view of IM suggests that individuals typically use IM to portray their characteristics in the most positive light (e.g., during an interview) or in attempt to have others view them as they view themselves (e.g., in accordance with their self-concepts). Thus, an actor who uses IM to be viewed as an attractive job candidate may, indeed, be smart and conscientious, or an actor who wishes to be seen as likable may, in fact, be a nice person.
Not all IM behaviors are consciously executed. That is, some IM behavior occurs subconsciously or is performed so habitually that individuals are not fully aware of their actions. IM theorists have argued, though that when IM is the result of a conscious process, the motive to manage impressions is a function of three factors: the goal relevance of the impression, the value of the desired outcomes, and the perceived discrepancy between an individual’s desired and current image. Goal relevance means that the motivation to manage impressions is especially high when the impression one makes is critical for attaining social outcomes (e.g., approval, friendship, assistance) and/or material outcomes (e.g., better jobs, higher salaries). For example, an individual’s motivation to manage impressions tends to increase when his or her behavior is public (rather than private) and when he or she is dependent on a target (e.g., the target is the person’s supervisor). The value of desired outcomes suggests that the more people want certain outcomes, the more likely they are to manage impressions in an effort to obtain them. Thus, it is not surprising that job applicants and those seeking promotions typically engage in IM behavior. Finally, the discrepancy between the desired and current image means that individuals are particularly motivated to engage in IM when they believe that others see them in ways that are inconsistent with how they would like to be seen. So, individuals who realize that they are viewed negatively are often eager to use IM behaviors to change the minds of those who view them unfavorably.
Broadly speaking, IM tactics are described as being either assertive or defensive. Assertive tactics of IM are initiated by people to create or reinforce a certain impression to a target. In contrast, defensive strategies of IM are more reactive and are typically employed when individuals are faced with situations in which they are likely to be viewed negatively.
Assertive Impression Management
Although a number of assertive IM behaviors have been identified, the five tactics that have most often been discussed are (1) ingratiation, whereby individuals seek to be viewed as likable by doing favors for others, agreeing with others, or flattering others; (2) exemplification, whereby people seek to be viewed as dedicated by acting like a good role model and going beyond the call of duty; (3) intimidation, whereby individuals seek to appear dangerous by making threats or signaling their power to punish or create pain and discomfort; (4) self-promotion, whereby individuals hope to be seen as competent by playing up their abilities and accomplishments; and (5) supplication, whereby people seek to be viewed as needy or in need of assistance by “playing dumb” or advertising their shortcomings and weaknesses.
Although IM tactics are used in the effort to create desired images, attempts at IM also carry the risk of being perceived negatively. Indeed, for every desired image sought by individuals using IM, there is a corresponding undesired image that is risked. For instance, individuals use self-promotion in order to be perceived as competent; however, they risk being perceived as conceited instead. Thus, while IM is often used in an attempt to advance one’s career interests, its use sometimes backfires such that individuals end up creating unfavorable impressions instead. Along these lines, research suggests that some individuals are more adept at using impression management than others. In particular, not only do high self-monitors use IM more frequently than low self-monitors, but high self-monitors who use IM are also more likely to achieve the desired image (and avoid the undesired image) than are low self-monitors who use IM.
From among the five IM strategies identified above, most studies have focused on the tactic of ingratiation. Researchers have identified three distinct forms of ingratiation. Opinion conformity occurs when actors express agreement with the opinions and views of a target. Favor-doing describes instances in which an actor does something for the benefit of the target. Last, other-enhancement (or flattery) occurs when actors make positive statements about a target. Generally speaking, investigations of ingratiation reveal that such tactics are positively related to performance evaluation ratings, judgments of liking, and indicators of career success. Of the three ingratiation strategies, though, other-enhancement seems to be the most effective tactic.
The ingratiator’s dilemma describes the idea that the more dependent individuals are on the target’s approval, the more transparent their motives for engaging in such behavior become, and, as a result, the more unlikely it is that their attempts at ingratiation will succeed. Consistent with this notion, studies in this area suggest that ingratiation behaviors tend to backfire when targets question the motives of actors who engage in ingratiatory behavior. In general, however, women appear to be less inclined than men to question the motives of those who ingratiate.
Self-promotion is another IM tactic that has received a significant amount of research attention. According to the self-promoter’s paradox, individuals who are exceptional workers rarely need to promote their competence, as they are likely to be viewed favorably by others. As a result, engaging in self-promotion is sometimes taken as evidence that individuals are not really as competent as they are making themselves out to be. Thus, the individuals who need to self-promote the most are the ones least likely to benefit from its use. Self-promotion, then, often entails significant risks to an actor, as targets may either discount the claims of those who self-promote or simply view such individuals as conceited and arrogant rather than as competent and accomplished.
Indeed, in contrast to the research on ingratiation, studies of self-promotion indicate that such behavior is often ineffective. For example, whereas some studies indicate that self-promotion may be helpful to individuals who are interviewing for jobs, other studies have typically found that self-promotion is negatively related to performance evaluation ratings, judgments of liking, and indicators of career success. Research also suggests that self-promotion may be especially harmful to women. Specifically, women who use self-promotion are often seen as more competent but, at the same time, are seen as less likable and less hirable than men who employ this behavior.
Relatively speaking, the IM strategies of exemplification, intimidation, and supplication have received less research attention. With regard to exemplification tactics, the research findings are somewhat mixed. In some studies, those who attempt to project an image of dedication or commitment seem to be evaluated more favorably than those who do not make such efforts; however, in other investigations, the use of exemplification seems to have very little impact on how one is viewed by others. With regard to intimidation, studies suggest that those who seek to be seen as tough or intimidating also tend to come across as bossy, pushy blusterers. Similar to the research on self-promotion, there is some evidence that the use of intimidation may have positive consequences for men (e.g., in terms of performance appraisal ratings) but have negative consequences for women. Studies suggest that supplication is sometimes used by individuals who want assistance with a task or who want to avoid doing an unpleasant assignment. In addition, research suggests that people who use supplication are frequently successful in projecting an image of neediness but often also tend to come across as lazy and less competent. In general, intimidation and supplication tend to be used less often within organizations than the other forms of impression management. Moreover, intimidation and supplication appear to be fairly risky IM strategies. That is, although an individual who uses intimidation or supplication may be able to coerce others into engaging in certain behaviors, doing so almost always comes at some cost to the individual’s reputation and interpersonal relationships.
Defensive Impression Management
In contrast to assertive IM, defensive IM is utilized in an attempt to protect individuals’ reputations from further harm or to restore individuals’ reputations in circumstances in which they are likely to be perceived negatively. Thus, defensive IM tends to be more reactive than assertive IM. Although a number of defensive IM behaviors have been identified, three tactics that have been addressed most often are (1) self-handicapping, whereby people make excuses in advance of performing a task so that if they do poorly, they will already have a justification for their weak performance (and will look even better if they actually do well at the task); (2) excuses and justifications, whereby individuals seek protect their images by dissociating themselves from certain events, by denying their involvement or responsibility, or by explaining the circumstances that caused them to behave in a certain way; and (3) apologies, whereby individuals express that their past actions were wrong and indicate that they will behave more appropriately in the future. The key issue is not the use of defensive IM per se, but whether the IM tactic has the desired effect on the target. In general, three characteristics influence how successful a defensive IM tactic is likely to be: the perceived adequacy of the explanation, how normative the particular explanation is (i.e., the extent to which the explanation provided is generally accepted within a particular context), and the perceived sincerity of the actor in providing the explanation.
Other Applications of Impression Management Theory
Whereas most research on IM has focused on the ways in which individuals utilize certain tactics and the outcomes associated with the use of those tactics, more recent research has focused on how individuals’ IM concerns may affect their behavior more indirectly. In particular, scholars have explored the ways in which IM motives and concerns may make employees more likely to manipulate information, less likely to ask for assistance, less willing to ask for feedback regarding their performance, and less inclined to support controversial causes in their organizations. Leadership scholars have argued that charismatic leaders use IM in order to be seen as trustworthy, credible, morally worthy, esteemed, and powerful. Studies of organizational citizenship behavior have sought to better understand how IM motives might explain employees’ willingness to go the extra mile for organizations by helping out their colleagues, taking on extra assignments, working weekends, and so on. For example, this research suggests that individuals may be especially willing to go beyond the call of duty when they believe it will enhance their images at work. In the area of organizational justice, some researchers have argued that projecting an image of fairness (i.e., looking fair) is often just as important as actually treating employees fairly (i.e., being fair). Some scholars have also explored the ways in which people can create the image that they have “paid their dues” or have earned what they have. Finally, at a more macro level, researchers have also examined the ways in which organizations use a variety of IM tactics to create an organizational image or identity in the eyes of employees, customers, shareholders, regulatory agencies, and other stakeholders.
Measuring Impression Management Behavior
IM tactics have typically been assessed using observation (under experimental or real conditions) or surveys distributed to employees and/or their supervisors. For example, some scholars have evaluated the use and effectiveness of the IM tactics individuals use when interviewing for real jobs. Other scholars have put subjects into certain (manipulated) situations and then observed their use of IM. The principal strength of this type of measure is that it does not rely on self-reported IM behavior, which reduces concerns regarding social desirability bias. A number of other studies, though, use surveys to obtain a large number of responses about a variety of IM behaviors. The most popular measure was developed by Wayne and Ferris and focuses on the extent to which employees use supervisor-focused, job-focused, and self-focused tactics of IM. These types of IM are very similar to the strategies of ingratiation, self-promotion, and exemplification, respectively. Researchers who have focused specifically on ingratiation in organizational contexts have often relied on Kumar and Beyerlein’s Measure of Ingratiatory Behaviors in Organizational Settings (MIBOS), although some scholars have raised questions about the dimensionality and validity of this measure. More recently, Bolino and Turnley have developed an impression management measure designed to tap ingratiation, self-promotion, exemplification, intimidation, and supplication in work contexts.
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