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Leadership First Impressions Last a Long Time

First impressions matter. They’ve been found to influence many important outcomes such as job interviews, election results, and even the length of criminal sentences that judges impose.

They also impact leadership success. In my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership, I show how first impressions of your interpersonal warmth and competence can have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on the willingness of others to trust your leadership.

I say that the impact is long-lasting because the science is clear that first impressions are quite resistant to change.

Stubbornly Resistant

A classic early study by Stanford university psychologists Lee Ross, Mark Leper and Michael Hubbard in the 1970s illustrated just how stubborn the human mind can be once it is made up. In this study, observers were given feedback on how well a group of test subjects (people) had performed on a certain task, from which the observers formed positive or negative impressions of them. The researchers then revealed to the observers that the results had been manipulated and the feedback they had been given on each test subject was, therefore, inaccurate. Despite the observers then being provided with new data that should have reversed their original impressions of the test subject, the researchers found that the observers generally persisted in believing the original assessments.

Inferring trait from state

One of the reasons these initial assessments are hard to shift is due in part to an extraordinary leap of reasoning made by our brains.

When first impressions are formed, the human brain doesn’t just make behavioural observations. It instead goes much further, performing large inferential leaps to deduce a stranger’s personality. This is a product of our ‘personality judgement instinct’, which first appears in early childhood and is such an essential life skill that by adulthood nearly everyone can do it well enough to get by.

This instinct is behind such statements as, ‘I am good at reading people’ – which actually means, ‘I am good at taking a small amount of information about someone’s behaviour and using it to predict what they are really like – including their personality, character traits and predispositions.’

Psychologists call this ‘inferring trait from state’, where we take a relatively fleeting observation of a person’s momentary state, such as a smile, and assume that it is indicative of a trait that is stable over time – that is, this person is smiling (state), so they are a friendly person (trait).

This means that if I offered an effusive ‘Hello!’ in the morning, you’d likely generate a first impression of me as an extroverted, optimistic and enthusiastic leader. A tired and lacklustre, ‘Hi’, delivered later after a very tough and challenging day could result in the first impression of me as an introverted, pessimistic or unenthusiastic leader.

Given that a negative judgement of my leadership worthiness can stem from a relatively temporary and fleeting impression of my facial expression or body language, it pays to be conscious about how you show up.

Be Intentional in How You Show Up

I teach aspiring and experienced leaders to be conscious of what they are projecting outward, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Being intentional in projecting warmth and connection, whilst appearing purposeful and focused will always help create the right first impressions of your leadership worthiness. It’s just the way our brains are wired.


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