What first impressions do you create?

My youngest is looking forward to starting university in a couple of weeks.  He is the only one from his school going to his chosen place and has therefore been happy to get any tips on how to settle in quickly.

His older siblings have given him some great advice, but over dinner this week we had an interesting and amusing discussion about the potential risks and undue influence of ‘first impressions’ when meeting others.  This was really brought to life for him as his older brother and sister recounted ‘colourful’ stories about freshers who were still trying to reverse poor starts.

Our conversation caused me to reflect on the importance of ‘first impressions’ in the context of personal impact in a work environment; as we all know, this is so important when developing relationships and seeking to influence colleagues.

Recently, I came across a copy of the first performance appraisal I ever received.  It was given to me in the early 1980s when I had started my career journey with one of the retail banks.  Slightly ‘tick box’ in structure, it made me smile as the first question was on ‘Professional appearance’.  Rather than focusing on the appropriateness of dress, it gave wider feedback on many of the points that have a huge impact on the initial impressions we create.

While I am certainly not advocating the re-introduction of such an approach, I do think it is an interesting area to reflect upon.  My perception is that many of us might shy away from feedback in this area for fear of opening a Pandora’s box.

So what does help to create a positive first impression?

For me, a lot of it is summed up in the sage advice I received many years ago from my dear late father… “When you meet someone, Andrew, stand tall, look them in the eye, smile, have a firm handshake and always have clean shoes!”

For me, that is a lovely summary of the observable components. I would add to this by encouraging us to also think about the extent of positive energy we exude and how we make people feel, something I explored in one of my previous pieces – ‘Are your colleagues secretly working on their ‘Patronus’ charms?’

Our challenge as leaders is that, taken individually, these are small things on which many people feel uncomfortable giving feedback, yet when aggregated they help us create the positive impact needed to quickly build strong and influential relationships.

If we then combine this with the modern reality of there being so much information about us via social media platforms such as LinkedIn, it is clear that many of those we meet will have already started to form those first impressions and potential biases long before we step foot into the room. And once subconsciously formed, they take time to be changed.

Just think of the times when you may have experienced that slightly awkward feeling when interviewing a candidate as you realise you may have formed an initial subconscious positive or negative bias from reading their cv or having been influenced by other interviewers or your initial face-to-face impressions.  And this begins to clash with the hard reality of spending more time with them and digesting their actual answers to your questions.

So if this resonates, here are a few practical things to think about…

  • Take another look at your social media business platforms.  Do they reflect how you would like to be perceived overall? What first impressions about your personal brand do they give off?
  • Think about what you can do to create the right environment to encourage a few trusted colleagues to give you some feedback on the impressions you give off.  What ONE thing can you do differently that would help you improve your initial impact and make a strong first impression?
  • Consider whether there is any feedback in this area you have been reluctant to share with a member in your team, but which would really help with their impact.  If so, find a way to share the feedback constructively with them.
  • Have a bit of fun with your team by jointly creating a little checklist of the things that matter in this area and then surreptitiously observing each other for a few days before taking time to share observations and suggestions for improving each others’ impact.
  • When meeting new people, make a conscious effort to challenge yourself on the first impressions you are forming and why.  Then, after you have spent a little more time with them, reflect on whether those impressions remain valid.  Over time, this will help you calibrate your own radar.

Andrew Pawley, Partner, Aretai LLP

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