If you’ve ever fibbed to get your way or withheld the truth so a friend wouldn’t get in trouble, you were likely using impression management. In this lesson, you’ll learn about impression management and some of its techniques.

Influencing Perception

Take a moment to think about the following scenario: You are in a room that is new to you – let us say a living room. As you look around, you take in information about the room: the size, the shape, the furniture, lighting and anything else that goes along with a living room. Got that picture or image in your mind? Good.

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Now, I want you to picture yourself being blindfolded and being walked into a different living room. This time, the person that is with you will only take off your blindfold for very short periods of time (maybe only a second or two). This person will also position your face in a specific direction so you will only be facing a portion of the room (once the blindfold is taken off). And again, your glimpse of the room will be short and at the direction of the person managing the blindfold.

This second scenario is a good example of what impression management is. When we talk about impression management we are talking about a person influencing another person’s interpretation of a person, place or thing by controlling the information they receive. Much like the person in the example we spoke about was influencing what you saw in the room by manipulating the blindfold, that person was controlling the information you were getting and thus had an impact on your thoughts of what that room would look like.

Example of Impression Management

Our example was a good one, but it will help to put this in more of a real-world example. John is hoping for a promotion. He has been working hard and believes he is the only person in the running for the opening. One day, he’s eating lunch with Allen, the hiring manager for this new opening, and Allen tells John he is thinking about talking to Warren about applying for the opening. This does not make John happy, and he begins to tell Allen (who only knows a little about Warren) about the struggles Warren has had with his current position because it takes away from his home life, and he wants to spend more time with his three children. John is using impression management on Allen to give him a different (albeit potentially false) impression of Warren.

Deceptive Impression Management

Impression management can be either positive or deceptive (or we say negative). As one would think, positive impression management means you are ‘talking someone up’ to another person or giving that person only good information so they will think highly of another. When we take the negative side, we’re talking about deceptive impression management. This is the ugly side of the issue where individuals control or only supply specific data in an effort to paint other individuals (John talking about Warren) in a poor light.

There are several categories of deceptive impression management. First, we have the sycophant. This is a person who does not provide honest feedback to their supervisor. In many ways, they tell their supervisor what they think they want to hear and in the end really end up talking behind their back. You see, impression management does not always have to be direct contact with an individual – like John speaking to Allen – saying specifically what they want the other person to hear. Rather, it can also be deceptive in nature by simply not telling a person what you believe and giving them a false sense of security or understanding.

Next we have the formal manipulator. While it can be said that all impression management is manipulation, the formal manipulator takes it to another level. While individuals might try to manipulate someone using information, the formal manipulator has a structured plan of exactly how to do it – specifically, what information he wants or does not want his contact to know and ultimately what he wants to get out of the situation in the end. Basically, the manipulator has a structured plan and a specific end goal in mind that usually results in them obtaining satisfaction in the form of money, promotions or position in the company. The formal manipulator is like the bad guy on the old soap operas or the person on the reality show that’s always plotting to get ahead.

Next, we have the direct liar. The direct liar is exactly that: a person who will give false information to gain an advantage. They are not as calculating as the formal manipulator, nor are they as passive as the sycophant. The direct liar, well, lies almost at the drop of a hat to get what he or she wants out of the situation. The problem is they are not as well thought out as the formal manipulator and usually in the end are discovered.

Finally, we have goodie two-shoes. This is a person that will manage the information a person receives with the intent of not hurting another individual. For example, they might not tell their boss something about a coworker, as it will get them in trouble. If the boss asks, they might shade the truth some or not give all the details. Their intent is to not hurt anyone, but, in the end, they are sometimes the victim as they were not honest when asked for information. Some liken this to the sycophant, but the difference here is this person is withholding information to not hurt individuals, where the sycophant is simply telling people what they want to hear.

Lesson Summary

In the business or social world, impression management is a fact of life. Sometimes it’s done to keep individuals from being hurt, and sometimes it’s done to gain an advantage (thus, it usually has a negative connotation). Remember, impression management is when a person influences another person’s interpretation of a person, place, or thing by controlling the information they receive. To that point, there are several different categories of impression management people:

  • Sycophant: A person who does not provide honest feedback to their supervisor.
  • Formal manipulator: Has a structured plan of exactly how to do it, specifically what information he wants or does not want his contact to know, and ultimately what he wants to get out of the situation in the end.
  • Direct liar: A person who will give false information to gain an advantage.
  • Goodie two-shoes: Will manage the information a person receives with the intent of not hurting any individual.

In reality it’s difficult to look at impression management in any other way other than deceptive, and truthfully, that’s really what it is. You are manipulating a situation, conversation or information with a specific goal in mind that serves you. That in and of itself is something that most people would find offensive once discovered.

Learning Outcomes

After this video lesson is done, students should be able to:

  • Define impression management
  • Understand the four types of impression management people
  • Recall that impression management can be either positive or negative