“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
We all know the importance and emphasis placed on impressions, especially first impressions. As mentioned in a 2011 Forbes article by Carol Goman, in business a first impression is often formed within seven seconds. The Forbes article speaks truth, but can you let your first impressions guide your actions as leaders? Do you really know someone within seven seconds? I have been married almost 22 years and as I am often reminded am still learning new things about my wife every day.
As a leader, you have to trust your gut reaction to rapidly changing situations. I argue this should not be how you evaluate the people you choose to be on your team. If you select team members solely based on first impressions, your team will not reach its full potential. In the military, leaders often have no choice as to who is on their team. No matter the first impression, the leader has to discover and take full advantage of the individual’s strengths.
Think back to a time where someone made a terrible first impression with you. Maybe you have a good story about yourself. Personally, I made a mistake once when meeting a new team for the first time when I was an inexperienced leader. I chose to be goofy and wear a giant sombrero as I stood up and talked to the team. Not a good first impression! But fortunately, my team chose to overlook my mistake and embrace my leadership over time.
A critical skill as a leader is to be able to look beyond your first impressions and see the truth. Contrary to the popular saying, the truth is not always plain to see. The best analyst on your team may have a strange hairdo. Your lead scientist may have bad breath. Your best writer may have a prickly personality. All of these traits might lead you to discount their opinions in your first interaction. It is your job to see beyond the distractions and discover the hidden gold. This is easier said than done, but here are some ideas to consider regarding overcoming first impressions:
Fight personal bias
As a leader, you must learn your personal biases and be aware how they affect your decisions. I could declare that you should have no personal biases as a leader, but that is not reality. We all have bias. No exceptions. Some of you have a hard time taking direction from a member of the opposite sex. Some may have bias for a person of your same race or ethnic background. All of us gravitate towards individuals that are similar to ourselves in some way. Learn your biases and realize they help form your first impressions. This is why it is so important to fight personal bias and look for the truth.
Look at long term performance
Rather than making a snap judgment based on one observation, apply good science to leadership and take a sample of behavior large enough to produce statistical significance. A single observation in science can in no way generate a valid conclusion. Treat leadership the same way and allow long term performance to form your opinions of your team members.
Do the hard work
Like Abraham Lincoln says in the title quote, take the time to look beyond your fist impression and get to know your people. This takes discipline to look objectively at his or her work and form an honest impression based only on merit. You may have to look hard at someone to figure out their strengths amid a bevy of negative inputs.
Looking beyond your first impressions is extremely difficult. We naturally make those impressions based on millions of years of evolution and survival. While your reptilian brain may be saying “no”, your leadership cortex must have the discipline to set that aside and seek the truth. Don’t hit the “easy button” and accept your first impression…it can be a prison from which there is no escape.