To manage your image effectively, you have to think constantly about how other people will perceive you.
Are you wondering if you’re good at image management? Ask yourself how you responded to that first sentence. If you said to yourself, “I am not consumed by what other people think of me—I have enough self-confidence to just be myself,” then you are probably bad at image management.
Because it’s not so cut and dried as either being ruled by everyone else or just being yourself. In fact, managing your image is mostly just making sure that people see you as your true self and don’t get side-tracked by things that easily derail our perception of other people.
Here are three ways you need to manage your image and you might miss these opportunities if you’re not paying attention:
1. Hang up on important people.
It’s clear that voicemail is a dying technology. Email is much more efficient, and it’s rare that leaving a voicemail is better than sending an email. But if a phone number is all you have, then you better be ready.
Which happened to me last week. I am raising funding for my company, and I had to call up a powerful, famous venture capitalist. I had an introduction to him. I had his cell phone number, and I was very nervous about getting the message right. As a writer, I wished I had his email, but I didn’t. Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe his cell number is more valuable to have anyway. Maybe harder to get.
So I rehearsed my voicemail—connection to the guy first, then my phone number, then what I want from him (a meeting), and then my name and number again. Ready.
Then I dialed and a recording said my message would be translated to email.
I went ahead with my rehearsed message. Which was totally stupid. An email should not read like a voicemail, so I had the wrong message for the wrong medium.
Now I know, for the future, that if that happens, I should hang up immediately and recraft the message I’m going to leave: Probably just a name and a number and the name of the person who referred me. Anything else probably won’t get translated properly by the voice recognition software anyway.
2. Compare yourself to losers.
A lot of your performance at work is about perception. For example, research from Tiziana Casciaro shows that if people think you’re likable, they will perceive that you do good work. And if people don’t like you, they will perceive you do bad work—even if you are a genius at work.
Also, it’s important to manage up—let people know what you’re doing well—so that they know what you are accomplishing at work and why you deserve to get great assignments.
The problem with all this is that you need to walk a fine line between pushing yourself to be a star performer and feeling good about what you have done already. Complacency is for losers, but so is perfectionism.
You need a balance. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University studied Olympians and found that people who win the bronze medal are happier than people who win the silver. Because silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists, while bronze winners compare themselves to people who didn’t get a medal.
If you compare yourself to low performers at work, then you feel successful, and if you feel successful you will be happier. This is circular, but in a good way, because people who are happier at work do perform better. Even against high-performers.
Gilovich sums it up this way, “Happiness is not a trait but a talent. Finding balance between achievement and satisfaction.” This is an example of how satisfaction is not actually material to the achievement, but more mental. So be sure to allow yourself enough satisfaction so that your achievements are recognized and people appreciate the chance to work with you. For many people, this means comparing yourself to the losers at work. But that’s good for you, as long as you keep on improving. (Hat tip: Dennis Yang.)
3. Spend money on image when money is tight.
Are you wondering how Sarah Palin could spend $150,000 for new clothes last month? If you don’t understand why she needs those clothes, you probably are not spending enough on your own image. The key to knowing what to spend money on is knowing what people are paying for, so you know what you’re cutting corners on.
For example, expensive bangs are very different from cheap bangs. If you don’t know the difference you don’t know whether to get crappy bangs. The same is true for eyebrows, and highlights. Newsflash: Good highlights in LA and NY are $300, without a haircut. And you have to get them done every two months.
Sarah Palin is going on TV every day. She has no idea how to look like the other people in that league, but she is doing what Republican stylists say, and she looks great. Who doesn’t look great in an Armani suit from Saks? That’s the thing about expensive. Expensive is safe, especially if you don’t know what you are doing—you will look like you know what you’re doing.
And don’t tell me about Michelle Obama’s $150 dress. She made headlines when she wore it on the View because making that outfit look great is hard to do.
So if you want to look like you belong at a certain level, you need to pay for what others in that league pay for. Work is a club. And if you think people want to see you cutting corners in a bad economy, you’re wrong. Time magazine reports that Playboy—the grand arbiter of all image consulting—found that in a bear market, centerfolds of meatier women sold better. This makes sense: In a down market you naturally want to be around people who don’t seem to be suffering from the financial hardship.
In a centerfold, it’s meat on your bones. In the workplace, it’s an Armani suit.