Does impression management make you less authentic?

Most of my clients realize that it isn’t any less authentic to be seen at their best than it is to display their worst (or sloppiest) behaviors.

Do you spell-check a report before turning it into your boss? Do you watch your table manners when dining with an important client?

Do you “dress for success” (whatever that means in your industry) when making a presentation to the executive team?

If so, you are not being “phony,” you are simply aligning the impression you want to make with a positive version of yourself. Which is how I explain the concept of impression management to the executives and managers I coach. Most of my clients realize that it isn’t any less authentic to be seen at their best than it is to display their worst (or sloppiest) behaviors.

A problem only arises when a client confuses habit with authenticity – especially around body language. For example: A leader may be slouching because he has always had poor posture, but that doesn’t make it authentic (“That’s just how I stand”), it simply makes it a habit – and, by the way, not a habit that serves him well.

As a leader, your posture affects how people perceive you. Just as someone with good posture sends nonverbal signals of energy, confidence, and health, a person with poor body posture appears uninterested or unmotivated – which I assume is not the impression any of us wants to project to our bosses, customers, and colleagues.

And that’s not the only nonverbal signal that can block people from seeing the real you. Here’s what happened to Tracy:

A few years ago, Tracy participated in a 360-degree trust audit. When the results of the review came back, she was surprised to see that she had received low scores in the area of transparency. When she asked for an explanation, Tracy was even more surprised to be told that she sometimes gave the impression of having a hidden agenda.

Because Tracy didn’t have any hidden agendas at work, it bothered her to think that co-workers could believe she was being deliberately secretive. When her boss suggested she should try declaring her intent in greater detail before laying out new ideas or plans, she worked on doing this for the next several months. But when the next trust audit scores were compiled a year later, they were exactly the same, once again noting her lack of transparency.

Then she heard me speak at a conference and wondered if her body language was part of the problem. As Tracy later told me, “My normal, core temperature is lower than most people’s. I’m someone who is chronically cold and in response, I have a habit of sitting in meetings with my arms crossed for warmth. I started wondering if it was this nonverbal signal of ‘closed’ that was at odds with my genuine openness.”

To test her theory, for the next several months Tracy made a point of wearing more layers of clothing and of opening her arms and gesturing more generously when speaking. It was a great relief when her next trust scores rose to reflect the honest and transparent person she really was.

Recently, I was asked to coach a gentle and shy group leader who was consistently passed over for promotion because, to members of the executive team, he didn’t appear shy, but rather, uncertain and insecure. Much of that erroneous impression was due to the fact that this brilliant man didn’t make positive eye contact when interacting with the executives. While his shyness was valid, his habitual lack of eye contact was behavior that didn’t authentically reflect his true intellect and senior leadership potential.

We are poor judges of the impression we make on others. In fact, when we see ourselves on video for the first time, it is often a humbling experience. I remember when a client watched the “practice” job interview I video-taped of him. He took one look and said, “Hell, I wouldn’t hire me!”

The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A mindset is a perception people have about themselves. If, for instance, you believe that your poor posture, lack of eye contact, etc. is “just the way you are,” you may hold a closed mindset. If, on the other hand, you believe that you can practice a chosen behavior until it becomes your new habit, you probably hold a growth mindset.

Recent advances in neuroscience are fully in the growth mindset camp, finding that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how connectivity between neurons can change, strengthen, and grow with experience and practice.

Authenticity is reflective of this process. It’s capable of continually evolving. As you practice and adopt the verbal and nonverbal traits that positively influence people’s impression of you, you are also in the process of transforming your authentic self.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit CarolKinseyGoman.com.