First Impressions

By: Jim Bruce

Correcting a Bad One

Several weeks ago, the Tuesday Readings featured a series of essays on neuroscience –Neuroscience and Change – Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.  What I learned from reading about this subject, and what I wrote about in these essays has changed the way I look at just about every leadership topic.
Take, for example, first impressions.  We create them all the time, know that they are important (some research suggests that they can carry more weight than facts), and we know that they are incredibly hard to change once made.  As I write this, I’m reminded of Peter, a staff member in an organization I was ask to lead 45 years ago.  Early in my tenure, I asked Peter to do a short study and have a report for me in about 10 days.  The due date came with no report.  My assistant called asking when I was going to get the report, as I wanted to take it home and work on it that evening.  Peter’s response, Jim hasn’t asked me about the report since his original request.  So, I thought that it wasn’t that important and didn’t start work on it.  This incident, and Peter having a flashy sports car, are all I remember about him.  Bad first impressions really last, sometimes much longer than good results from the same individual.
So, what’s going on here?  Thinking about this from the neuroscience point of view of “threats” and “rewards,” a bad first impression I hold represents a perceived threat to me and to the person who created the bad impression.  For example, if I give Peter another assignment will he, again, not perform?  Whether he says that he will deliver on time or not, is, in my mind, at best, a risky proposition.  And, his not performing could impact my deliverables and result in my boss, my clients, etc. seeing me in a less favorable light.  And, if he doesn’t perform, I will see him or her even more unfavorably.
From the neuroscience point of view, when he didn’t deliver in the first instance, a “memory” of the incident was stored as a threat in my amygdala.  And the next time something similar is sensed, subconsciously, detectors process the information and when the threat detectors get a match, my conscious mind is alerted.  And, since there are five times as many threat detectors as there are “reward” detectors, alerts tend toward threat unless the “reward” is very likely certain.
And, this is true no matter what led to the bad impression.  It could be missing a major or minor project deadline, inappropriate dress for the occasion, a bad joke, crude language, a limp handshake, etc.  It makes little difference what caused the bad first impression, the impression will linger and have an impact on your relationship with the individual who has the bad first impression of you.  And, it will likely impact any relationship you have with him or her.
So, what can you do about it?  There are lots of suggestions in the literature.  Here are three that I think are particularly worthy of note:
1.  Apologize.  I was once at a reception where all the current and former MIT senior officers were introduced.  I was overlooked and not introduced.  Later, the individual making the introductions saw me, came over, and apologized.  Not all situations are amenable to in-the-moment apologies, but some are.  And, in those instances it is useful to step up, apologize, and avoid any negative impression that will begin to take hold.
2.  Over Compensate.  In your next interaction, do everything you can to deliver more than expected.  For example, going back to my initial example, if I gave Peter another similar assignment, he could over compensate by providing me with his plan for delivering the report to me, an update along the way, and the product in advance of the deadline.  And, just doing it right once doesn’t erase the bad first impression.  Research suggests that it’s necessary to have eight positive encounters to change a person’s negative impression of you.  You’ll know you’ve erased the negative impressions because the quality of your interactions will have changed.
3.  Build a Strong Positive Relationship with the Individual.  Many times when we have created a bad initial impression of ourselves with an individual, we withdraw and avoid contact with him or her.  That makes the situation even worse.  Given that this individual matters, instead of withdrawing, you should build a strong, resilient relationship with him or her.  This means doing the hard work to get involved in his or her work to the point where each of you influence the other.  Think 4Is.
First impressions, good and bad, are just that, first impressions.  They are not last impressions, just the beginnings that with your time, effort, energy, and strategy will demonstrate your true capabilities.  So, step up, and take those actions necessary to address the situation, learn from it, let it go, and move on.
Summer is nearing its end, I trust that you have had some time for rest and rejuvenation, and with your family, and are now ready to begin the new school year.  If not, there are still a few weeks where you might get that in.
Do make this week a great one!  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Dorie Clark, 4 Ways to Overcome a Bad First Impression, Harvard Business Review.
Kristi Hedges, The Do-Over:  How To Correct A Bad First Impression, Forbes.


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