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First Impressions

| May 24, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Overcoming a Bad One

The very first exercise we do in the MOR Leaders Programs is one on first impressions.  Sit or stand in a circle, take notes on the first impression you have of the individuals in your circle, add some notes about the first impression that you think you create, and share.  For most individuals, this can be a scary moment since most people have never considered what impression they make on others or the impact it has on building a future relationship with that individual.
We are often told that that it is very important to make positive first impressions;  that these impressions are made very quickly, some say within 1/10th of a second;  and, that these impressions have a major impact on the success an individual has in his or her job and personal life.  And, they do.  It’s for this reason, that we urge our program participants to determine what authentic first impression they want to leave with people, and to practice it to the point where it is a firmly grounded habit.  The importance of this is reinforced by research that suggests that first impressions can be so powerful that they’re weighed more heavily than fact. 
And, yet, no matter how hard we try, sometimes we blow it.  Some say that first impressions are once and done, that there is no way you can change that impression.  However, if the impression involves someone that you need to interact with on an on-going basis, with work, you can change the impression.  So, what can you do?  Here are five suggestions:

1.     It’s a first impression.  And, you have no opportunity to change it.  But, if this is someone you are interacting with all the time, the individual’s impression of you can evolve over time.  We’ve all seen our impression of a person change the longer we’ve known her.  If you want a person to know the real you, make sure that he sees that person every time you interact with him.  By witnessing your skills and personality over a longer period of time, the person’s perception of you will change over time.  However, if you blew it with someone you will never interact with again or who won’t have any impact on your personal or professional life, you might let it pass.  The exception, here, is that if what you did in creating the negative impression cast another individual in an inappropriate ethical or moral stance, then you very likely need to apologize.

2.     Small consistent interactions build trust fast.  Kristi Hedges reports that “A Harvard study revealed that it typically takes eight subsequent positive encounters to change another person’s negative opinion of you.”  So, persistence and patience will pay off.  For example, if the first impression that your boss’s boss has of you is the late delivery of a report, you’re not going to restore your impression by delivering the next report on time.  It takes real consistent work over a long period of time to be seen in a more positive light. 

3.     Apologize.  If, in your first encounter with an individual, you did or said something that this individual found to be inappropriate, insulting, or offensive, apologize.  Acknowledge your error, say you’re sorry, and move on.  Over apologizing will simply make the situation worse.  For example, if you are the person late with the report in the previous paragraph, apologize briefly addressing the situation that led to the late report and make the point that it won’t happen again.  And, be very sure that it doesn’t! 

4.     Ask for advice.  Adam Grant, author and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business says that asking for advice, for example on some aspect of your work, is a smart way to be influential.  He points out that asking for advice allows you to get in front of the person again and have a new interaction and thereby make a new impression.  

5.     Wait it out.  Dorie Clark suggests that the impression your colleague formed and associated with you may have literally nothing to do with you.  For example, you may have reminded the colleague of someone they didn’t have a good relationship with and it was automatically attributed to you.  If a relationship with that individual is important, be persistent, and consistent, with how you want to be perceived. 

So, all is not lost if you blow that first impression, but you do have some work you will need to do.  You might begin by going back and reexamining the first impression you intend to make.  First, is it authentic, is it true to who you really are?  And, second, how consistent are you in making that impression?  If you are not consistently nailing it, maybe you need to intentionally practice.
Make the first impression you desire to make and your week will be a great one.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Kristi Hedges, The Do-Over:  How To Correct A Bad First Impression
Dorie Clark, 4 Ways to Overcome a Bad First Impression
Jessica Stillman, 9 Ways to Fix a Bad First Impression