Most people draw their impression of a person, place, or object in the first few seconds of interaction. Research shows that most impressions are formed in less than a minute and can carry forward throughout a relationship. Although we may warn our children, friends, and colleagues of the hazards of first impressions, we still default to it on numerous occasions as we meet new people, select a product, or decide on a course of action. How many times have you met someone only briefly and concluded there is “something about the person that is not right” or “there is more to this person than one might think.” Similarly, how many times have you run into a store to buy one item and the items placed by the register have ensnared you to leave the store with extra purchases. More commonly, almost everyone has experienced going with the first thing that comes to mind when a tough decision is necessary.
Part of the survival of our species is tied to the ability of make quick and decisive decisions. In ages past, if you encountered a large cat with big teeth that was about to pounce, you had to know to run and not engage since the odds of success were relatively low. This rationality based on balancing risks and rewards served our species well, but trial and error clearly played a role in development of this ability. In other words, some people were eaten by the cat as well. A good article on the topic appears in Psychology Today on their website: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200405/the-first-impression.
So, how do we maximize the benefit of this ancient survival skill?
- Know the score
- Take a second look
- Understanding different roles
Know the Score
Like many things, it is important to know the parameters that you work under in order to be successful. Since first impressions are common, it is safe to assume that people prepare for first impressions and maximize the benefit of them. A variety of books and articles discuss how to appear as a friend to begin with and to put the new acquaintance at ease. Given that most of us know how important first impressions are, we prepare for meeting someone important. Several years ago, I worked with a group of candidates that were leaving college and entering the workforce. Each one had taken the time to actually conduct biographical research on the executives they were meeting with for interviews as part of a job fair. If the executive liked golf, the candidate loved golf and talked about it during the interview. If the executive came from Michigan, then the candidate had a close friend or family member there and talked about all the great places to visit. It was as if the executive and candidate were separated at birth and had to be reunited. Only after a few of candidates were hired the executive realized the person was not as similar as one might have thought.
Take a Second Look
Taking a second look simply means asking some follow up questions and assessing the first impression more fully. The keys to a second look are the content of what is said as well as the associated body language. Listen carefully to what the person says and ask questions. You do not have to be trained in psychology to recognize anomalies in body language when speaking with someone. If a person is nervous or not focused, it many times relates to some form of internal stress. Another important facet of taking a second look is not to retreat inwardly immediately and start comparing words and actions to yourself. Evaluate a person on their own merits and do not be afraid to explore your first impression before conducting any type of internal assessment.
Understanding Different Roles
Most of us play different roles with different people. We are friends, fathers, mothers, children, experts, and novices. We have one role at work and another with our family. These differences are sometimes are even more pronounced and instill different personalities associated with the different roles. Depending on the role that a person is playing at the time, the first impression could be very different. I worked with an executive team that complained about their CEO’s leadership being out of touch and too consensus based. The CEO was a grandfather and had worked in that industry for over 30 years. The executives when they were hired were partially drawn to his organization based on the emotional response of working with a benevolent grandfather type figure. This image stuck from the first impression during the interview process stayed with the executives. However, in time, the executives felt they had outgrown their “grandfather” and no matter what the CEO did, the first impression stayed. This impression led to considerable organizational anxiety and in the end resulted in most of the executives leaving. As leaders, we adopt different roles. The important thing is that we use the right role for the right impression.