You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression…

This morning I saw a remarkable lady. When I profiled her earlier in the year I found her story intriguing and in many ways quite extraordinary. She’s had personal circumstances that have taken astonishing resilience to survive and (despite a tough exterior), she has played a role in helping friends that goes above and beyond much I have ever seen. Over the course of her working life she has also achieved some tremendous things. Yet her fate in her current organisation is not certain. While I’m often able to influence decision making, this time I cannot. Her ultimate circumstance will be decided by external advisors who have seen her in a snapshot of time – an older lady, who doesn’t sell herself well. It seems so unfair that they do not know the story that makes up who she is or what she is capable of.

Unfortunately, how we present ourselves in a ‘snapshot of time’ matters. Science illustrates that a ‘first impression’, the mental image we form of a person, is made within a tenth of a second[1]. This shows both the fallibility of our decision making and how our ancient brain is often in the driving seat when it comes to judgements. The more primitive part of our brain makes quick fire decisions as a survival mechanism because in the world that our brain evolved to work in, we had to decide if someone new was a threat, a useful addition to our tribe, a possible mate or a potential leader. These mechanisms dominate our thinking today, yet we remain largely unaware incorrectly assuming that we are rational and fair in our conclusions.

Judgements can and do differ depending on context but broadly speaking research shows that we greatly favour people who are young and attractive[2].  After how a person looks and their body language the next mechanism for judging a strangers’ character is how they communicate.

When it comes to job interviews, good communication can create strong biases toward a candidate regardless of their actual capabilities. One paper found that “Chronic self-promoters may thrive in job interviews”[3] because they are able to position their capabilities and achievements with impact. Even skilled interviewers, people who have met and assessed person after person can be unwittingly misled by someone who has ‘the gift of the gab’.

A prime example of this are those narcissistic leaders whose appointments we may rue. Typically, they have managed their way through interviews and promotions simply by knowing how to play to very primitive drivers found in us all. That doesn’t make them good at their jobs but they have weaved their way to the top through adept communication. By which time they wield enough power to get rid of any ‘bumps in the road’ (a certain President may come to mind). I am as guilty as the next person of making quick, subconscious judgements, but through training and conscious effort I, like my fellow psychologists, are able to spot these bluffers. After a life charmed by their communication skills, we (psychologists) are typically the first to catch these people out (and by the way it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of an angry narcissist who blames you for blocking their way). But as is the case for the lady at hand, our advice is not always taken.

It’s not easy to step away from our subconscious biases, I certainly don’t manage it in my everyday life. It is however worth stopping to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re not guilty of too quickly ‘judging a book by its cover’ – whether positively or negatively.

What about how we present ourselves to others?

For me, as a young, blonde graduate entering the workplace, I resented judgements made, it certainly undermined my capabilities in many situations. I worked hard to prove my worth, both to myself and those around me, collecting qualifications as a signpost to my capability.

By my early 30s I’d tired of trying to prove myself, and strongly believing in authenticity, I switched to not caring what people thought. I did not fit a mould and I would not try, rather I would use my experience and track record to get my point across. This approach worked when I’d been introduced by word of mouth, but letting down the barrier of impression management meant another set of unhelpful judgements came my way.

Now I am ‘older’ I realise the importance of presenting well, albeit in a more nuanced way. That doesn’t mean I get it right, nor that I can overcome other people’s rapid-fire judgements. I do however have a much better understanding of the need to meet half way – not changing who I am but ensuring that I present my best self.

Whoever we are and whatever we do we owe it to ourselves to learn how to manage the impression that others make of us. Sometimes we have to accept that we will be judged incorrectly, that’s the way that the human brain works, but as far as possible authentically understanding and presenting our own narrative, taking control of what we can, gives us a fairer chance in the world.

 

What can you do when it comes to your own presentation?

Pause: and think through what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. One leader I coach takes 5 minutes to set himself up mentally before going into any key meeting.

Ask for feedback: you don’t know how you come across unless you ask. By getting feedback you can make better use of your good points and play down the bits that you feel are less representative of who you are.

Understand yourself better: raise your self-awareness, learn more about your strengths, passions, experiences, interests and what that means to who you are.

Read: Introduction to Personal Branding by Mel Carson for some really helpful tips in a short easy to read format.

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References:

[1] Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological science17(7), 592-598.

[2] Genevieve L. Lorenzo, G. L., .Biesanz J. C.,  Human, L.J. (2010). What Is Beautiful Is Good and More Accurately Understood: Physical Attractiveness and Accuracy in First Impressions of Personality Psychological Science Vol 21, Issue 12, pp. 1777 – 1782

[3] Paulhus, D. L., Westlake, B. G., Calvez, S. S. and Harms, P. D. (2013), Self-presentation style in job interviews: the role of personality and culture. J Appl Soc Psychol, 43: 2042–2059. doi:10.1111/jasp.12157

Image: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/05/05/308349318/you-had-me-at-hello-the-science-behind-first-impressions