The “Looking Glass Self” is an interesting psychological concept I came across a few days ago that I believe relates to many types of interactions we may have in project management.  This concept was created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902.  According to information I found on Wikipedia this concept states that:

“a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to people shaping themselves based on other people’s perception, which leads the people to reinforce other people’s perspectives on themselves. People shape themselves based on what other people perceive and confirm other people’s opinion on themselves.”

What is important here is the emphasis that much of how we view ourselves is shaped by the people who are closest to us.  We effectively identify ourselves according to how these people see us.  For example, we view ourselves as “the hero” in the eyes of our children, or “the angels” in the eyes of our mothers, etc…

According to literature associated with the looking glass self, there are three components associated with the concept:

  1. We imagine how we must appear to others.
  2. We imagine the judgment of that appearance.
  3. We develop our self through the judgments of others.

To some extent what this means to me is that other people’s perception of us almost become a self fulfilling prophecy.  If our teachers in high school view us as trouble makers we are likely to view ourselves as such while if they see potential in us we could very well meet their expectations.

I’ve mentioned before on previous posts that project management has a great deal to do with perception.  Much of how a project turns out to achieve is based on key stakeholder perceptions of potential success or failure.  I also think that there is an important link between projects and the psychological concept in the looking glass self, in particular our team interactions.  I suspect that we are also influenced by people based on who they remind us of.  For example, a project team member will interact in a confrontational way with a project manager if that individual feels that the PM reminds them of an aggressive older sibling.

Understanding concepts such as the looking glass self offers us an opportunity to gain insight into human thinking and interaction so that we can develop a better style of leadership and management.  While much of this can be intuitive the benefit is that these concepts can offer some “ah ha” moments as we try and deal with difficult issues and challenging individuals.