Sunday 18 August 2019

Gina London: Managing impressions and why you are how you act

'Like Trump, we are the product of our content.' Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP
'Like Trump, we are the product of our content.' Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Gina London

He did it again. The latest Twitter tirade from Donald Trump this past week prompted the Democrat-led House of Representatives to issue its first condemnation of a US president in more than 100 years. Although I'm a former CNN correspondent who reported from the White House, I realise this is not a political column. But Trump's tweets offer such a powerful case study on leadership communications that I hope you'll indulge me for a moment.

The quick scene-setter here is that Trump tweeted to four female congresswomen of colour to "go back" to the countries they came from. (By the way, of course, they are all Americans. That's how you get into Congress.)

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Anyway, Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, decried him as racist since he used one of the oldest racist phrases around.

Yet the president doubled down on the remark and declared, "I don't have a racist bone in my body".

Some political analysts and journalists are debating that Trump is deploying a deft tactic to frame the upcoming 2020 presidential election and, when Democrats pick up his bait, he distracts attention from his policies to his pumped-up personality. I won't debate whether he is a racist deep down.

However, unless we're X-ray technicians, we can't see into his bones, which leaves us with his spoken and written words, from which you can draw your own conclusions from the volume of content he has produced over the years. So, that is what we'll focus on today.

Like Trump, we are the product of our content. How we appear, behave and communicate establish the experiences we have with other people which, in turn, define for others and ourselves who we are.

Back in the 1950s, sociologist Erving Goffman popularised the phrase 'impression management', as he compared the way everyday people behave in everyday life as similar to performing on a stage in a theatre.

1 Adapt to your workplace

While I was on holiday last week in Italy, I had the good fortune to meet Nanna Tolborg, a senior chief consultant with Promentum, a project management and facilitation training company based in Denmark.

She emphasises that in today's so-called gig economy - which sees more independent workers freelancing from company to company - there is more pressure than ever before to responsibly create and build positive impressions about yourself, to help you effectively connect with employees and the environment you may find yourself in.

She said: "What I've been writing about is for freelancers to seek to understand the codes and the contexts of the company they're in.

"Not to become a chameleon in the negative sense of the word, but to determine if they should dress up or use particular words from the organisation's lexicon, to have the right people listen to them."

Think about this. Different organisations have a range of distinct or more subtle codes within their culture.

The more research you can do before you arrive there, the more you may be able to make adaptations that can help them see you as part of their culture.

2 Adapt to connect with the other person more

Danish philosopher KE Logstrup asserted that we must actively put ourselves into another person's hands "either by showing or claiming trust".

This can be achieved by adapting yourself to connect better with another person. Consider the range of ways you can behave, and modify within that range.

As Tolborg points out: "It depends on your purpose and how far away it is from what you want to become and what others will accept.

"If you enunciate your words more to be clearer or change your tone, you are still remaining true to yourself. Remain true to your values.

"Don't drastically change your personality to try to mirror each different person you may interact with, or it could backfire. You don't want to become like soap in someone's hands."

Don't become so slippery no one can get a handle on who you really are. But if you can help the other person connect with you better by making slight adaptations, that is positive impression management.

3 Understand your success comes from shared experiences

Few of us achieve success alone, Tolborg points out, adding: "When we communicate, we are always giving a little bit of ourselves to the other person.

"If we can help them understand our view and connect with them, then they have a little bit of you in their hands, and that makes them want to help you succeed."

The idea here is that if you can connect positively and properly with that person, your goal, your project and your aspiration become a shared responsibility. This applies especially in team-driven projects.

The more you can connect and establish a shared vision, and contribute in a sharing way, the more likely you will achieve success.

"This is the beauty of becoming. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to become who you want to, and you do that by helping others actively see how you are," Tolborg sums up.

Or as I sometimes say, "you are how you act". And for that, we don't need an X-ray to peer into our bones.

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