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  • Writer's pictureTeam Nellie

What is impression management, and how can assessments take this into account?

Updated: Apr 21, 2023


Impression management:


This theory (Goffman, 1969) suggests that individuals are actors and will present whichever face they feel will best suit their audience and, to some degree themselves. It is argued that to some extent, this is socially constructed. However, in individuals who want to present their best face to, for example, somebody who will be carrying out an assessment, it can be not easy to see through the façade and see the real individual behind their layers of a constructed identity.


How might this impact assessments?


To get to the bottom of what the individual needs and carry out a meaningful assessment, one has to ensure that they have as much as the full picture possible. At Nellie, we carry out holistic and robust assessments to ensure that the individual has the best opportunity to identify their true needs, wishes and capacity identified in our reports. When individuals or their families adopt an impression management approach, it can make this difficult to achieve. Transparency and honesty make for better, more honest reports. Including the fact that usually, our reports have some element of legislative requirement, so having an open and robust report is necessary. Unfortunately, there have been many situations whereby clients' families have taken on this impression management style which can make our assessments very difficult.


How to overcome the façade?


There are many ways this presents and many ways to overcome this. First, however, we need to be mindful of why an individual may feel about adopting an impression management response.


  • Masking

  • Coercion

  • Suspicion of professionals

  • Self-esteem

  • Fearful of the consequences of the report

  • Social construction whereby the individual does not understand another approach


Let us start with masking;


When an individual is diagnosed with an impairment or disturbance to the functioning of the mind or brain or feels that they have memory issues, this can lead to an inability to accept this. These can be linked to Kubler-Ross stages of grief as the loss of memory is a loss. The individual may be unable to accept what is happening to them, so they go into a state of denial. In some circumstances, the individual can be that adamant that they are not experiencing any issues that they develop a script as such. Although it is not their aim to mislead or misrepresent themselves, they do this to protect themselves as they cannot accept what is happening to them. This is usually quite easy to detect. When somebody is masking when asked to summarise information provided, they typically cannot do so without starting the conversation again and going through their speech. For example, you could be in an assessment for roughly an hour, and the individual is telling you their story, which appears to cover all of the relevant information. At the end of their "story", when asked to summarise or recap, the individual will go back into their scripted story again or ask you again what the purpose of you being there is.


Coercion;


Coercion is insidious, and the individual(s) do not even have to be present to exert their coercive power over the client. At Nellie, we are mindful of signs and signals and have a section within our reports where we have to evidence if we feel (or not) the client has been under any undue influence or coercion. It is not usually as simple as the client informing us that they feel under pressure as not all clients would recognise or if they do, would say. Again this goes back to our training, specifically communication training and body language. And gut feelings "Practice wisdom," as one of my old tutors would call it. When an individual is experiencing coercion, their body language and what they are trying to say are often at dissonance with each other. We are experienced at reading body language and subtle clues, so we can challenge individuals to ensure that their truth is indeed "the truth" in that particular situation. Usually, suppose an individual is seen with a family member, and there is coercion. In that case, it is quite easy to recognise as the family member will over-talk the individual or prompt. We again can challenge this or ask to see the client alone.


Suspicion of professionals;


Luckily, in private practice, we normally see our clients because they have asked us to visit. There have been a few instances whereby the individual has not wanted me there, and a family member or a legal professional has instructed. The individual will automatically have their barriers up and will not want to talk or say too much. I think there is a mistrust of social workers and not just in the children or family sectors. Anyone who has been trying to implement care will know that they have to submit financial information. Some people are not comfortable with sharing financial details. This does make assessing individuals for property and financial affairs more difficult, especially if the client has adopted a guarded impression. Again a reliance on our training and our experience can minimise the barriers. We have to build meaningful personable relationships in moments, which takes a lot of practice and is a skill. Usually, the ability to be reassuring or to provide a therapeutic approach will work in these situations. Sometimes it is just as simple as being yourself and having a joke and a laugh to put the individual at ease and make them see you are just a person.



Self-esteem;


A person lacking self-esteem can either be guarded or agree with whatever they feel that you want to hear. At Nellie, we adopt a strengths-based approach to elevate clients' self-esteem by focusing on what they can do for themselves. For example, if assessing an adult social care needs assessment, we focus on what the individual can do for themselves. Likewise, if carrying out a mental capacity assessment, we often focus on their wishes and feelings.

If the client lacks capacity, they still will have an opinion on what they would like to happen. Listening to the client will make them feel important and ensure that they do not feel uncomfortable with the assessment. We ensure that the assessment is not a test and feels more like a therapeutic assessment where it's an equal discussion between the assessor and client.


Fearful of the consequences of the report;


Losing the ability to make decisions can be very emotional for individuals, particularly if somebody is still lucid in other areas. When you can recognise that you are struggling with your memory, it can be a very emotional time in your life—seeing a report which states that you have indeed lost the ability to decide on a specific area can be a shock to an individual. Pre-empting a professional opinion can be quite stressful. We try to be as open and honest as possible with the client when assessing to prepare for the report's conclusion.

Again taking a strengths-based approach is needed in these situations but being realistic and diplomatic is important. As with any assessment, if the client does not agree, then we can revisit. We have had instances where clients have been assessed over a video link, and they have not represented themselves well. In this situation, we are more than happy to provide a face to face visit. Some people are not natural over technology, and we recognise that. Other times clients are just scared of losing their decision-making abilities. In this situation, I would always reassure the client and provide information regarding the Mental Capacity Act (2005) and Code of Practice to ensure that the individual understands that their rights are protected.


Social construction whereby the individual does not understand another approach;


When we adopt impression management, we usually do so as we have a desired goal or a predetermined idea of how to represent ourselves in any given situation. We all are actors on a stage and present ourselves differently, dependent on which position we find ourselves in. As social workers, we are expected to act with honesty and transparency and uphold the profession's values, as are many professional vocations.


An individual who has been socially constructed not to show emotions or to be guarded may carry on acting in that role. It is a cultural belief that the English have a "stiff upper lip". Which loosely translates into a lack of being able to show emotions. This can be difficult, especially when dealing with clients you know are emotionally open but have been socially conditioned to be guarded. It is like all of their body language and being is asking for help, but their voice is unable to. We go through our lives and have different experiences that shape us and make us develop into who we are. Again the ability to build up a professional relationship quickly helps in this situation. Being ourselves and being honest has been proven to work. I have had numerous clients who have openly stated, "I have never told anyone that before". This is how social work is and should be, valuing individuals and seeing their true selves whilst offering support and transparency.



Summary;


As social workers, we do not often praise ourselves, so we also buy into the impression management theory. Admittedly there are times when you do have to put on a professional image, you would not want to turn up to court in your Oodie, and we do have to be switched on emotionally and mentally throughout our day jobs. However, we can be ourselves and personable with clients. It is refreshing to the clients to see you as just a person the same as anyone else. And we do pride ourselves on our ability to provide the right support to the client in an individualised way.


Although impression management does have its place, we adopt the persona that best suits the environment to get on in life. However, it is also refreshing to recognise the impacts and provide an honest assessment with the client without the perceived "acting".


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