Every other week my company has a short "huddle" for the tech and product orgs, and at a recent huddle, one of my coworkers introduced our new focus on building a community of psychological safety within the team. Psychological safety within a team exists when members of the team feel that they are able to speak up without fear of embarrassment, rejection, punishment, or retribution. In a psychologically safe team, individuals can admit to mistakes without being blamed and can feel comfortable raising concerns or admitting that they don't understand something. One habit that interferes with creating true psychological safety is impression management, a process where individuals are focused on influencing the perceptions that others have of them.
I am self-aware enough to know that many of the things I do at work are my way to manage how others see me. I'm often afraid to ask questions or ask for help because I don't want my teammates to think that I don't know what I'm doing or that I'm not competent or good at my job. I have had times when I asked a question and the answer was something I actually already knew but just hadn't thought applied to this situation, and instead of taking that as a reminder that sometimes its easier to ask a question than to struggle with finding solutions myself, I tend to use that as an excuse to not ask questions (because I don't want others to think that I don't understand "simple" tasks). I'm also afraid to take the initiative on solving problems because I'm afraid I might disappoint my team by incorrectly identifying the problem or by not being able to find a solution. I also have a tendency to make self-deprecating jokes when I'm not sure if I did something correctly because I would rather have my teammates laughing with me, not at me (although rationally I know my teammates are probably not laughing at me, even when I make what I think are stupid mistakes).
I know that if I stop trying to manage impressions I can focus more of my energy on growing as an engineer and as a person. After a previous negative work experience, I have a very real fear of being fired, and I know that if I can stop worrying about that, I'd be more willing to step outside my comfort zone and grow. If I'm not worried about what my teammates will think of my work, I'd be more willing to take on interesting tasks that give me an opportunity to learn new skills. If I can stop being afraid what my teammates will think if I ask them for help, I can give myself more opportunities to learn from my amazing teammates and get to know them better. If I can move away from managing impressions and focus on my own work and not how others view me, I know I will be creating more opportunities for myself and giving myself a better chance to grow.
While acknowledging that I am focused on impression management is a good first step, change comes from adopting new behaviors, and so I've identified some behaviors that I want to adopt over the coming weeks. In a recent 1:1, my manager and I discussed the fact that I feel like I've been low on work most sprints (even though I'm being assigned a similar amount of work as my teammates), and I'm afraid to ask for more work because I'm not sure that my teammates trust me to take on more work than others. This conversation with my manager was one of the first times that I acknowledged how much my decisions are influenced by managing impressions, and one of the action items that came out of our discussion was that if there's a sprint where I feel like I'm not being assigned enough work, I should ask for more tickets at sprint planning. I know that I am capable of doing more than what I am assigned some sprints, and if I can get over my fear of how others will view my asking for more work (which comes from managing impressions), I know I can be more productive and contribute more to my team. My goal for our next few sprint planning meetings is to volunteer to take on more than my usual number of points (because my usual number seems to be too low), and to feel comfortable speaking up if I feel like I haven't been assigned enough points.
Another behavior that I've already started to adopt in my journey to stop managing impressions is being an active participant in mistake club. Mistake club is when we actively discuss mistakes we've made (right now we're doing it as part of our sprint retrospectives). By publicly acknowledging our mistakes, it normalizes the idea that everyone makes mistakes and gives us an opportunity as a group to learn from those mistakes. I know that I make a lot of mistakes, but it can be difficult to admit those mistakes in front of my team, but framing them as learning experiences makes it a little easier for me. Once I'm fully comfortable sharing my "learning experience" mistakes, I'm hoping that leads to me becoming more comfortable sharing the mistakes that I haven't yet learned from, even if I don't know how my team will react. By sharing my mistakes with my team, I'm not only normalizing making mistakes, I'm showing myself and my team that what I do wrong doesn't matter, what matters is that I can move forward from it and do better next time.
I want to set a concrete goal for improvement, but this is an area where it's hard to measure improvement. What concrete number or metric can I use to determine whether or not my actions are motivated by how I want others to see me? There isn't really a way to measure whether or not I'm managing impressions, but I can set goals based on what I think will happen when I stop managing impressions. When I'm not managing impressions in sprint planning, I will feel comfortable asking for more tickets and more points, and I will end up completing more points each sprint (and spend less time feeling like I wasn't assigned enough points). If I get over my fear of asking for help (which I know comes from managing impressions), then I can get input on my work from my teammates while I'm working instead of when I finish my work and I would then expect to see fewer comments on my PRs.
I know that I spend a lot of time managing impressions, which doesn't really put me in a position to be my best self at work. I'm trying to be better abut not managing impressions, but I know it will be a difficult process. Being aware of the problem and looking for solutions is a good first step, and I hope that over time I can find a way to be authentic at work and focus more on my work than on how I think others see me.