As humans, we’re really good at managing what people think of us.  Psychologists call this “impression management”, and this strategy works really well for self-protection.

One of my favourite moments in the TV show Ted Lasso is where foul mouthed tough guy Roy Kent is accused by his girlfriend of cheating and is forced to admit how he really spends his time.  He’s not out with another woman; in his eyes it’s much worse – he is spending two nights each week doing yoga with a group of women in their 60s and watching Love Island-style reality TV.  Roy has been secretive about this because he is worried that if his girlfriend knows the truth, she will no longer love him, and the way he enjoys spending his time doesn’t fit with his macho persona.  

How impression management gets in the way of speaking up 

Impression management doesn’t just exist in our personal relationships, it’s a constant in our professional lives as well. Most of us have experienced wanting to ask a question, offer an idea or challenge the status quo at work, but chose to stay quiet instead. Impression management and self-protection have played a role in this. If you don’t want to appear ignorant, you don’t ask questions.  If you don’t want to seem incompetent, you won’t admit weakness or mistakes, and if you want to be seen as a team player, you definitely won’t challenge the status quo or call out wrongdoing. 

The problem is, if we are too scared to ask questions, offer ideas, challenge the status quo or call out wrongdoing, our organisations can miss out on huge opportunities. People are less likely to speak up if they fear that this will have personal consequences.  We know that people often hold back from speaking up, even when what they believe that what they have to say could make a significant difference.  Asking a basic question like “What is the goal of this project?” might sound simple, but impression management can get in the way, causing the person to worry that they will appear to be out of the loop, or perceived as challenging their superiors. Research by Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School indicates that these types of silence are incredibly common and come at a significant cost to the organisation.1  If we don’t hear from people in the business, we may be missing out on a game changing idea or miss an early warning of a threat that someone saw but didn’t feel comfortable raising.

Why is psychological safety important?  

Psychological safety is the shared belief held by members of a team that it is safe to speak up, that team members will not be punished or humiliated if they raise questions, offer ideas, voice concerns or admit mistakes. Psychological safety describes a team environment characterised by trust and mutual respect, where people are comfortable being themselves. 

Without psychological safety, it might be easier to continue without getting clarification on the goal of the project in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant or intrusive. But if the question isn’t asked, valuable time and resources can be wasted because employees don’t have the clarity required to effectively do their work. 

Calling out bad behaviour or reporting wrongdoing is even more challenging without psychological safety. Past research in organisations indicates that approximately half of the people interviewed stated that they remained silent when they witnessed wrongdoing within their organisation2. People who work in psychologically safe organisations, where they know that they can raise their concerns without fear of adverse personal consequences, are far more likely to raise concerns.3  

Steps you can take to improve psychological safety at work.  

Psychological safety is not the result of being nice; it’s about creating an environment of trust and candour, where the free exchange of ideas and productive disagreement is encouraged so that people know their voices are heard and their opinions valued.  If we want to build psychological safety at work, we need to be mindful of the power of impression management and create an environment where everyone can ask questions or raise concerns without being worried that this will cause their teammates or their boss to think less of them.  

If you are the leader of a team, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to model vulnerability by making sure that your team knows that you don’t have all the answers and their views are valued. It is also imperative that leaders respond productively when a person risks impression management by expressing an idea or raising a concern. A productive response could be as simple as acknowledging or thanking the person for coming forward and seeking their views on what to do next.  

Building psychological safety takes commitment and focus, often incorporating new beliefs and behaviours, none of which is easy. Being aware of the power of impression management and recognising the vulnerability involved in speaking up is a good place to start.  

 Looking to build a listen up, speak up culture in your organisation? Download our leader’s guide on how to comply with Australia’s whistleblower legislation and understand its impacts.