David Bowie on Impression Management

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How many times have you heard the adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression?” If this is true, then I don’t think anyone told David Bowie. This iconic musician has been reinventing himself for over forty years.

In 1969, David Bowie found acclaim with the hit song “Space Oddity.” This could have been the beginning of David’s career. Instead, he ditched “David Bowie” and took on the character of Ziggy Stardust, the self-proclaimed ultimate rock star wearing leotards, makeup, an eye patch, and spikey red hair. According to David,

Ziggy was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theater. The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous. Nobody had seen anything like him before.

Ziggy was hugely successful; selling millions of records and concert tickets. Then, as quickly as Ziggy appeared, David shelved that persona for Aladdin Sane, a detached, cool hipster with a lightning bolt painted on his face. David’s ability to create new and original characters has continued ever since – Thin White Duke, Jareth the Goblin King, the Regular Dude with a Regular Dude Band, etc. Each identity has been a reinvention of David with distinctly different music, clothing, and stage presence. Selling 134 million albums, earning two dozen top ten songs, and performing over 5,000 concerts, we can see the power of successfully applied impression management.

Without taking on a completely different persona, which would certainly cause some confusion in the office, a proficiency in impression management is a necessary skill for each of us. Impression management is our ability to influence how we are perceived by others. It has a powerful effect on the opportunities we are afforded, the ways we are treated, and our ultimate success.

Perception often trumps reality. If you are perceived as smart and capable, you’ll be on the executive fast track. If you are perceived as dimwitted or unmotivated, you will remain in the lower echelon of the organizational hierarchy. This may not seem fair, but we are all guilty of letting our perceptions shape opinions of others. It is a basic human behavior.

The good news is that we can actively change, update, and/or tweak our image. Here are a few tips to help you manage your impression:

Get introspective. Ask yourself, 1) “how do people currently perceive me,” and 2) “how do I want them to perceive me.” This gap analysis will show you the aspects of yourself that need some work and what you are trying to accomplish.

Live it. The goal of impression management is to establish and maintain an impression that is congruent with the perceptions you want to convey. Therefore, it begins with presenting yourself as the person you wish to be. Want to be management material? Stop hanging out at the water cooler and start brainstorming ways you can improve the organization. Want to be taken seriously? Stop mumbling and speak with self-assurance. You have to live it before others will treat you that way.

Be sincere. Impression management is not about tricking others into believing something that is not true. The idea is to present the best version of yourself. If you feel that you are losing yourself, stop! Go back to your original goals and figure out where you may have strayed.

Remain Positive. A good impression is based on exuding positive energy. Smiling mixed with complimenting, praising, and treating others respectfully is the best way to promote and enforce your “new” image. Positivity needs to be spread around to everyone, regardless of their position, degree of influence, or apparent ability to affect your career. This will help you avoid the slime effect, a negative impression that occurs when people are exceedingly nice to their superiors but treat subordinates condescendingly.

With each of his unique images, David Bowie showed another side of himself. You can dismiss it as performance art, but David was aware that the way he looked and presented himself would influence the way we heard and perceived his music (“Starman” would not have been as evocative if David had been in a tuxedo). Your appearance, communication, and general demeanor have the same control over how others see you. You don’t need David’s spandex red velvet pants…but who am I to say what impression you are trying to make.

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