4 Ways to Overcome a Bad First Impression
We’ve all been there — accidentally alienated a new coworker with a bad joke, underwhelmed the new boss by botching our first assignment, or had a client we didn’t just click with. The trouble is that initial impressions are hard to shake.
In a psychological phenomenon known as the “fundamental attribution error,” humans are quick to “essentialize” the behaviors of others. You might have simply been having a bad day, or you might have been off your game because of a recent breakup or death in the family, but your new colleague isn’t likely to extend that generous of an explanation. Instead, they’re far more likely to assume that your subpar performance is an essential trait — making it extremely challenging to overcome their negative perception. But, as I discuss in my book Reinventing You, it’s not impossible to change how others view you. Here are four ways you can begin to overturn their entrenched beliefs.
Surprise them. The reason people don’t often change their initial impressions is that our brain is optimized to conserve energy; if there’s not a compelling reason to re-evaluate something, then we won’t. So you need to manufacture a reason by surprising them. Your colleagues may have built up a certain, inaccurate impression of you — that you’re not leadership material because you’re too mousy and quiet, for instance.
You can’t expect to overturn that thinking with subtle gestures. You need a bolder strategy to force them to re-evaluate what they thought they knew about you. If you’ve developed a reputation for being quiet and never speaking up, it won’t suffice to talk once in a meeting. Instead, make a point of being the first person to speak, and making multiple comments. If your colleagues have to ask themselves, “What got into him?” then you’re on the right track in beginning to change their views.
Overcompensate over time. A forceful change in behavior may get your colleagues to take notice. But if you only do it once, they can write it off as an aberration: He must have had too much coffee that morning. Instead, keep up your new behavior over time, and recognize that in order to change perceptions, you’ll need to do it far longer than the original behavior for which you were pigeonholed.
As Heidi Grant Halvorson, the author of Nobody Understands You and What to Do About It, told me in an interview,it’s essential to “bombard them with a lot of evidence to suggest that their first impression of you was wrong. It can’t be subtle.” For instance, if you have a reputation for tardiness at work, “What you have to do is be early and be early for weeks. You need to make the evidence that you’ve changed, or that you’re not who they think you are, abundant and eye-catching. If you just keep that up for a while, eventually people will change their opinion of you.”
Get closer to them. If you’ve started out on the wrong foot with a colleague, it can be tempting to avoid the problem by staying away from them. But keeping a distance is likely to exacerbate the problem, because — since they’re not receiving any new inputs about who you are — it will only reinforce their existing perceptions. Instead, force yourself out of your comfort zone and find ways to get to know them better. Ben Michaelis, a psychologist and the author of Your Next Big Thing, says that when it comes to changing perceptions, “Don’t use words; use actions. Once people have a point of view, the best way to shift it is through mounting behavioral evidence rather than just half-hearted niceties.”
Years ago, an employee of mine used this strategy to good effect. My initial impression of Matthew was that he was a bit lazy and distractible at work. Realizing that I was increasingly unimpressed with him, he made an ingenious move. He suggested that we get to know each other better by going to a rock climbing gym — an activity at which he was very experienced, and I was a novice. I was literally dependent on Matthew’s expertise as his climbing partner, and seeing his competence and mastery showed me a different side of what he was capable of.
Wait it out. Finally, sometimes the bad impression your colleagues may have formed has literally nothing to do with you. Nearly a decade ago, I met a woman at a conference. Today, we’re close friends and see each other regularly, and have collaborated on several projects together. But, she revealed to me several years after we first met, she hadn’t actually liked me at first. A slightly cynical New Yorker, she thought I seemed “too positive” — and therefore somewhat fake. It was only after knowing me for several years that she determined it wasn’t a façade; that’s actually how I was. “It was my own baggage,” she told me. There was nothing I specific I had done to make her think I was fake; she had projected her past experiences onto me. If you’re patient and continue to act in ways you’re proud of, most people will eventually come around.
It’s frustrating and unfair when we feel misunderstood. But while initial impressions tend to stick, they can — with time, effort, and strategy — be changed, so that your true talents can be appreciated.
A version of this was first posted on hbr.org