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Career Coach: A little self-monitoring might help you in your move up the career ladder

By Joyce E. A. Russell,

Some people are so oblivious that they don’t seem to realize how their behaviors impact others.

It’s that person sitting in the front row of a seminar reading a magazine or checking his e-mail while a speaker is talking. Or the person making condescending or inappropriate comments to others without realizing they might be offensive. Then he wonders why his career hasn’t taken off. The people around him are also puzzled — does he even realize the things he does?

According to psychology expert and professor Mark Snyder and his colleagues, self-monitoring refers to the ability and desire to regulate one’s public expressiveness to fit the clues or requirements of the situation. It includes three characteristics: a concern for social appropriateness, sensitivity to social cues and an ability to control one’s behavior in response to those cues. Many executive coaches I know have expressed concern over those people who seem to lack self-monitoring and get themselves into trouble by not regulating their public behaviors.

People who can self-monitor well use cues from others as guidelines for regulating and controlling their verbal and nonverbal self-presentation. They are especially attuned to role expectations and tend to pay close attention to the behaviors of others. Those who self-monitor poorly tend to be not as sensitive and responsive to situational and interpersonal cues. For example, consider two situations of talking with a chief executive during a formal presentation and chatting with the buddies you socialize with. A good self-monitor understands that these situations call for different behaviors, while someone who does not self-monitor well uses the same behaviors regardless of the situation.

Why is it important? Research has shown that high self-monitors are social chameleons, adapting their attitudes and behaviors to suit different situations. They are better able to present themselves in socially desirable ways and are able to adjust to new situations more effectively than low self-monitors. They are more likely to be successful in managerial positions where they are required to play multiple, and even contradictory roles. They can change their leadership style to fit the situation. They often emerge as the leaders of work groups since they’re great in boundary-spanning roles — where they need to be able to interact with different groups of people such as CEOs, HR professionals, consultants and others. They are also more likely to resolve conflicts through collaboration and compromise.

High self-monitors are more adept at using impression management tactics such as ingratiation and self-promotion to achieve favorable images among their peers. This enables them to more successfully move up the corporate ladder.

On the other hand, low self-monitors can’t disguise themselves as easily — they seem to show their true dispositions and attitudes in every situation. What they show in public is very similar to who they are in private. They insist on being themselves in every situation, despite social expectations. Low self-monitors seem oblivious to how others see them and may even insist that they can’t “change who they are.”

Snyder has an assessment and there are other similar tests you can take to determine your level of self-monitoring. Once you check your scores, you could get additional feedback from others (who will candidly tell you) about whether you seem to be a high or low self-monitor.

Ask them what specific behaviors you exhibit to reflect low or high self-monitoring. Then, ask them the consequences for your style, such as loss of perceived respect, concern by colleagues over your lack of emotional control, individuals being unwilling to work with you, or loss of career opportunities.

Increasing self-awareness of your behaviors is often the first step toward making changes or improvements. Create a specific action plan for your behavioral changes and enlist a friend or coach to provide feedback to help you stick to your plan.

While you may not change from being a low to high self-monitor, it is important to recognize your self-monitoring style and whether this is one facet of your personality that is keeping you from moving up in your career or becoming more successful.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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