Sunday, July 31, 2016

Are You Image Focused?

Your personal brand is your unique competitive advantage which is a precious commodity in today’s highly competitive business world; and your brand is significantly affected by your perceived image out in the big wide world. It doesn’t matter where you are on the career ladder or what skills and experience you have – unless you have somehow saved enough money for your brand not too matter anymore, how you ‘promote’ yourself and how you let others promote you will have a significant short-term and long-term impact on your perceived image by others – and hence impact your dreams and aspirations on a business and personal level.
As HBS professor Laura Morgan Roberts sees it, if you aren't managing your own professional image, others are; "people are constantly observing your behavior and forming theories about your competence, character, and commitment, which are rapidly disseminated throughout your workplace," she says. "It is only wise to add your voice in framing others' theories about who you are and what you can accomplish."
The art of developing our own brand is something that is lacking in many educational and business environments. Yet considering how important your image is in optimizing your potential future – the art of personal image and brand building should be a part of a teenager’s basic education from 16 years old at the very latest.
Professor Roberts highlights how “in the increasingly diverse, twenty-first century workplace, people face a number of complex challenges to creating a positive professional image. They often experience a significant incongruence between their desired professional image and their perceived professional image. In short, they are not perceived in the manner they desire; instead, their undesired professional image may be more closely aligned with how their key constituents actually perceive them. Members of negatively stereotyped identity groups may experience an additional form of identity threat known as ‘devaluation.’ Identity devaluation occurs when negative attributions about your social identity group(s) undermine key constituents' perceptions of your competence, character, or commitment. For example, African American men are stereotyped as being less intelligent and more likely to engage in criminal behavior than Caucasian men. Asian Americans are stereotyped as technically competent, but lacking in the social skills required to lead effectively. Working mothers are stereotyped as being less committed to their profession and less loyal to their employing organizations. All of these stereotypes pose obstacles for creating a positive professional image.”
The world has become a very critical and hypocritical place as we try to learn to come to terms with living our lives in such a public arena. The beauty about the human race used to be our unique individuality and yet this can feel like a curse in this new social-media focused world with people making blind judgements based on their own, often ignorant, ‘beliefs’ without even pausing to understand the situation and the facts. It’s quite scary just how quickly people are prepared to make huge assumptions and judge complete strangers based on as little information as a simple photo or set of words.
Professor Roberts reminds us that “even positive stereotypes can pose a challenge for creating a positive professional image if someone is perceived as being unable to live up to favorable expectations of their social identity group(s). For example, clients may question the qualifications of a freshly minted MBA who is representing a prominent strategic consulting firm. Similarly, female medical students and residents are often mistaken for nurses or orderlies and challenged by patients who do not believe they are legitimate physicians.”
She goes on to add that “In order to create a positive professional image, impression management must effectively accomplish two tasks: build credibility and maintain authenticity. 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. On the other hand, when you present yourself in an inauthentic and non-credible manner, you are likely to undermine your health, relationships, and performance.”
30 years ago unless you were some form of celebrity or very successful business person, you were pretty much anonymous outside of your personal and business circle of friends and colleagues. You just had to worry about your ‘local’ image, which was pretty much in your hands to control. Probably 30 years ago people actually wished they could ‘market’ themselves more easily on a global scale, though it seems that we have gone from one extreme to the other.
In today’s business world “people attempt to build credibility and maintain authenticity simultaneously, but they must negotiate the tension that can arise between the two. Your ‘true self,’ or authentic self-portrayal, will not always be consistent with your key constituents' expectations for professional competence and character. Building credibility can involve being who others want you to be, gaining social approval and professional benefits, and leveraging your strengths. If you suppress or contradict your personal values or identity characteristics for the sake of meeting societal expectations for professionalism, you might receive certain professional benefits, but you might compromise other psychological, relational, and organizational outcomes.”
The desire to be noticed and be part of the ‘social media community’ must be tempered by the need to manage your personal image, both in the short and long term, to the extent that you feel in control of your ‘projected message’ allowing you to market yourself more effectively – which should be one of the core benefits of social media.
Professor Roberts concludes by reminding us that “first, you must realize that if you aren't managing your own professional image, someone else is. 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. Be the author of your own identity. Take a strategic, proactive approach to managing your image.”
Roberts, L.M. (2005). Creating a Positive Professional Image. Harvard Business Review, June []