One of the most valuable insights gained during my years as a consultant with Synectics, Inc.—the creative group problem-solving firm that helped inspire the Open Connections approach to education—has to do with a theory of human motivation. Our noble leader, George Prince, called it Impression Management. Attention to this aspect of group process has saved me endless hours of needless conflict. Falling prey to it, on the other hand, has resulted in unnecessary conflict and emotional distress. As with several other “morals-to-the-story” of process consciousness, this one is worth taking seriously.
George’s theory went like this: at any given time in a meeting (formal or otherwise), people participate at more than one level. The first and most obvious level is the “meeting on the floor”—the one that would be captured on film if the cameras were rolling. It features all of the spoken dialogue, physical gestures, diagrams or other sources of content that are presented and discussed. Your ideas, my ideas, your questions, my critiques—everything that we say out loud—is part of this first-level meeting.
The second-level meeting is an internal dialogue that has several components. The first deals with much of the same content as the meeting on the floor—definitions of whatever topic we are addressing, various criteria for possible solutions, ideas in their various stages of development, arguments pro and con, etc. It also includes material which we don’t bother to share, possibly because we think it’s not worth mentioning, or because it seems totally irrelevant (“Oh, I’ve got to remember to call Susan after the meeting to find out what time we’re going out tonight.”) Or maybe it would seem needlessly critical (“If Jim suggests that we go on another retreat I’m going to scream.”)
Normal procedure is to oscillate between these two meetings—the private one and the public one. We bring material out from the former into the latter, in whatever manner we see fit. Similarly, the public meeting sparks new thinking in our internal dialogue. Sometimes our private meeting takes us away from the public one, such as when we go off into a daydream; more often, however, it is more like we are flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia, looking for something useful to contribute to the conversation.
I should like to set aside the matter of “seemingly irrelevant” thoughts about some content or another, tagging it for a latter discussion about how such material can actually prove quite useful to the task at hand if we treat it as a potential source of new insights rather than as a distraction. Instead, I should like to describe a third-level meeting that occurs alongside the internal/external dialogue described above. This third-level represents a totally separate agenda. It is not about the actual topic of the meeting or conversation. It is about our feelings and about self-evaluation. As the term Impression Management implies, it is ultimately about our concern for our image in the eyes of whomever we are with at the time, or think we might be in the future.
We all, by nature, tend to want to look good. We generally want the approval of others. It is in our nature to want people to think we are smart, competent, level-headed, caring, creative, etc. Depending upon the situation—for example, in a boss/subordinate relationship, or a romantic one, or between parent and youth or traditional teacher/ student arrangement—where the stakes would seem to be higher than with a stranger or casual acquaintance, our desire for approval can reach the point of feeling more like a need than a mere preference.
In some ways this observation is common sense. We are familiar with the hazards of being so desperate for someone’s approval that a person might make a decision with unfortunate or even terrible consequences. In such cases, an outsider might ask rhetorically, “Why would you do something so stupid?”, to which the most obvious answer would have to be, to gain or maintain the approval of one’s friends. Equally commonplace are the stories of people who marry someone or enter into a career that clearly (to an outsider) makes no sense except to please a parent or avoid embarrassment for reversing course when everyone thought you were pursuing your own dream.
My point here—and George Prince’s—is that this same dynamic is actually in play for most people during most of our waking lives. Even a person whose self-image is rock solid and is based on a core “I’m Okay” belief can at least temporarily succumb to the ravages of Impression Management when pushed to do so.
George first noticed this while reviewing videotapes of business meetings. He saw seemingly confident and highly successful executives defend ideas that they knew were misguided and highly problematic. He saw them publicly attack other ideas that they had previously supported in private, ignore information that obviously could have been useful, cover up other content that would have proved detrimental to their position.
These and similarly irrational behaviors were (are!) so commonplace—again, in both formal and informal “meetings,” including casual, everyday conversations—that George speculated that something fundamentally human must be going on. Such actions were far too widespread to be merely the personal quirks of an isolated few. Everybody, it seemed, could easily be pushed to behave in this manner— to make sarcastic comments, to ask obviously hostile questions (seemingly hostile to everyone but the questioner, that is), to refuse to admit shortcomings in an idea or a decision that clearly (to everyone else) was not working.
Why does this happen? Impression Management theory suggests that at any given moment, the content meeting can and will take a back seat to the more important process meeting of protecting our self-image, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. The less highly we think of ourselves the more vulnerable we are to a sense of disapproval from others. But that fear never entirely goes away, no matter how satisfied we may be with the person we see ourselves as being. Thus, if someone proposes an objectively “good” idea and if we think that implementation of that idea will threaten our position in any way—our sense of economic security, of public esteem for us, etc.—we will most likely attack that idea despite its obvious value. Similarly, we will advocate against a proposal that comes from someone for whom we bear some ill will, again even though we know that there is value in that person's suggestion. We simply can’t let him or her win the competition for public acclaim.
If all of this sounds as if it applies only to a limited and pathetic few, I should like to suggest an experiment: the next time you observe someone whose idea or actions are being criticized or rejected, watch how he or she responds. Even better, tune in to your own thoughts and feelings when you are the one feeling attacked. How do you respond? Chances are, your first priority is to establish your value in your own eyes and in the eyes of whoever else is around. It is almost impossible to ignore a sense of feeling discounted, and it is almost as difficult to avoid seeking revenge with a return jab of some sort, or a hide-the-pain laugh, or a thought of “I’ll-get-you-back-later.”
Such responses are not an indicator of weakness; they are a reflection of our humanity. At Open Connections, as at Synectics, the moral to the story is to speak in ways that do not invite others to feel the need for Impression Management. Offer thoughts, ideas, evaluations and the like in ways that invite collaboration, not competition, for example. Introduce an idea as a How-to rather than in the form of a You-Should possible solution. Begin the positive amendment of an idea with a Balanced Response rather than undermining it with the stereotypical “Yeah, but” response. These and other aspects of a Process Conscious way of living will replace many moments of unpleasantness with a pattern of joyful togetherness. Count on it.