There's an emerging body of research which suggests that the ability to "self-monitor" has a significant effect on our relationships and professional prospects, particularly for women (cf. "Overcoming the Backlash Effect: Self-Monitoring and Women's Promotions," by Olivia O'Neill of George Mason and the GSB's Charles O'Reilly and "What’s Good for the Goose May Not Be Good for the Gander: The Benefits of Self-Monitoring for Men and Women" by the GSB's Frank Flynn.)
And a few months ago when I shared a link to the O'Neill/O'Reilly paper, a friend of mine replied, in essence, "Interesting--and just what does 'self-monitoring' look like in practice?" Which prompted me to take a closer look at the research.
The concept of self-monitoring in both papers cited above (and in much related research) is based on a 13-question instrument developed by psychologists Richard Lennox and Raymond Wolfe. This instrument was first defined in the June 1984 issue of the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology"--here's an abstract, although the full article is behind the APA's paywall. (Boo, academic publishing!)
The first 7 items in the instrument refer to one's "ability to modify self-presentation":
1) In social situations, I have the ability to alter my behavior if I feel that something else is called for.
2) I have the ability to control the way I come across to people, depending on the impression I wish to give them.
3) When I feel that the image I am portraying isn't working, I can readily change it to something that does.
4) I have trouble changing my behavior to suit different people and different situations.
5) I have found that I can adjust my behavior to meet the requirements of any situation I find myself in.
6) Even when it might be to my advantage, I have difficulty putting up a good front.
7) Once I know what the situation calls for, it's easy for me to regulate my actions accordingly.
And the final 6 items in the instrument refer to one's "sensitivity to expressive behaviors of others":
8) I am often able to read people's true emotions correctly through their eyes.
9) In conversations, I am sensitive to even the slightest change in the facial expression of the person I'm conversing with.
10) My powers of intuition are quite good when it comes to understanding others' emotions and motives.
11) I can usually tell when others consider a joke to be in bad taste, even though they may laugh convincingly.
12) I can usually tell when I've said something inappropriate by reading it in the listener's eyes.
13) If someone is lying to me, I usually know it at once from that person's manner of expression.
While I assume we'd all readily agree that the ability to "modify our self-presentations" and to "sense the expressive behaviors of others" are essential interpersonal skills, it can be challenging to determine how we might improve our skills in these areas without a clearer sense of just what those vague phrases mean. So I find it helpful to see these concepts broken down into such specific behaviors.
I don't know for certain whether this clarity actually supports our efforts to improve in these areas, or even the extent to which conscious intent makes a meaningful difference; perhaps some of these skills are simply innate, and I'd love to see further research on this. But my experience as a coach certainly suggests that intention and attention matter a great deal with regard to any type of behavior. I fully accept the premise that self-monitoring has a significant effect on our relationships, and I suspect that a clearer understanding of the behaviors that comprise self-monitoring, active intention to express those behaviors, and periodic reflection on our effectiveness all contribute to improved interpersonal experiences.
UPDATE: This post prompted a friend of mine to ask whether excessive self-monitoring leads to inauthentic behavior--for my response, see my follow-up post on Self-Monitoring and Authenticity.
Photo by impetus2. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons!