In this latest blog, our Head of Learning Solutions, Jennie Marshall, discusses first impressions and how to fight the first impulse of bias and judgement.
I’m sure you’ve all heard this one before:
“You only get one chance to make a great first impression.”
In fact, I bet you’ve heard it hundreds of times, because it’s true. “First Impressions” leave an undeniable mark on everyone – a mark that takes up so much space in the brain that the second, third, fourth, and on into the thousands of impressions can get crowded into the deeper crevasses.
This can be a big problem for a leader as they go down the road building a team over the course of several years. I’ve seen this problem manifest itself several times – I’ll give you a (fictionalised) example:
Joe is a young mid-level executive who is hired to be a staff manager. He’s smart, talented, enthusiastic, and a challenger (otherwise known as someone who doesn’t suffer fools very gladly). He also has a tendency to speak his mind a little too aggressively, and has no fear of making decisions on his own. He arrives and begins to display all of these characteristics, with an untimely emphasis on the latter two characteristics. So the job is getting done, and done well although his first impression creates the “mark”. “Loose cannon prone to snap decisions”.
The years roll forward and Joe gradually starts to iron out the rough edges, and he matures into a real leader – in his mind he is ready to be promoted to a higher level position aligned with his capabilities. Unfortunately, most of the improvement occurs out of sight of his higher level bosses. An executive position becomes available and Joe enthusiastically applies for the job. He makes a great case in the interview, and yet, is eventually turned down for the promotion. Why? “We think you’re a loose cannon prone to making snap decisions”.
The first impression stuck, compounded by the lack of “first hand” views on the ensuing improvement. The impulse for the hiring leaders was to revert back to it – not all that unexpected because, after all, Joe only had one chance, right?
Leaders MUST fight this impulse. The best way to do this is to be able to look at your teammates with fresh eyes when you are thinking about organisational changes or promotions. Take the extra time to focus on the last 12 months of development, rather than the first 12 months from when they started.
If you haven’t had the chance to get many first-hand observations to change those first impressions – get them from other people. Ask around. Ask the people who spend the most time with this person. Of course, the problem can work in reverse as well – the person regresses after a fantastic start, but still gets the promotion because of the great first impression.
I know, it’s hard to do this – it’s going against basic brain wiring. But there’s too much to gain by using our “fresh eyes” and creating new first impressions with those we lead. People can change. They can mature. They can go from “not a chance in the world” of being a great leader to someone who could actually change the world with their leadership. Or, they can shine brightly for a few months or a year, and then fade away.
Fight it. Hard. Don’t be just a manager – be a leader. And build a better team.
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