Managing Your Professional Image

Last Updated Jul 1, 2009 10:12 AM EDT

Harvard Business School professor Laura Morgan Roberts' article Creating a Positive Professional Image is one of the most popular ever run on HBS Working Knowledge.

Her theme: If you don't actively manage your professional image, others will do it for you. Create your own identity. Take a strategic, proactive approach to managing how others perceive you.

This was written in 2005, just before social networking started to take hold. Today, with so many "yous" spread out over social and professional networks, this advice this is more important than ever.

What is a professional image? Roberts defines it as a set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character as perceived by your key constituents -- colleagues, clients, superiors, subordinates.

Managing your image successfully means completing two objectives: build credibility and maintain authenticity. "When you present yourself in a manner that is both true to self and valued and believed by others," she says, "impression management can yield a host of favorable outcomes for you, your team, and your organization."

Here are several takeaways from the piece to keep in mind. Please read the entire interview for a more in-depth look at the topic.

Identify your ideal state.

  • What are the core competencies and character traits you want people to associate with you?
  • Which of your social identities do you want to emphasize and incorporate into your workplace interactions, and which would you rather minimize?
Assess your current image, culture, and audience.
  • What are the expectations for professionalism?
  • How do others currently perceive you?
Conduct a cost-benefit analysis for image change.
  • Do you care about others' perceptions of you?
  • Are you capable of changing your image?
  • Are the benefits worth the costs? (Cognitive, psychological, emotional, physical effort)
Use strategic self-presentation to manage impressions and change your image.
  • Employ appropriate traditional and social identity-based impression management strategies.
  • Pay attention to the balancing act--build credibility while maintaining authenticity
Manage the effort you invest in the process.
  • Monitor others' perceptions of you
  • Monitor your own behavior
  • Use strategic self-disclosure
  • Have a preoccupation with proving worth and legitimacy
For some, all this sounds a little self-calculating. Can't I just be me and let the chips fall where they may? Maybe, but how people perceive you in the workplace is one of your most important assets or negatives. If you devote time to career management, why wouldn't you be equally proactive at spending time on your professional image?

What about you? Do you actively manage your own professional identity? How do you want others to think about you as a manager?
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.