Matters Column

Overcoming first impressions and misconceptions

March 7, 2014
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When working with people, our first impressions often influence the way we respond to and react with them. 

When we pre-suppose what another’s strengths or weaknesses are because of the way they look, act or present themselves, we limit (or elevate) their ability to contribute. When we rush to judgment, defining the capabilities of others based on what we perceive rather than through an analysis of their proven abilities or an examination of the results they produce, we pre-dispose their performance to rise only to the level of competence our minds have established. 

Some dangers inherent in giving in to our first impressions would include: Unfounded perceptions can negatively influence our thoughts and actions — often encouraging us to make inappropriate and potentially harmful decisions.

I once worked with the owner of a small machine shop that was struggling financially. A 76-year old machinist became a “source of conflict” within the shop. The owner wished all his employees were as loyal and undemanding, seeing him as a great role model for others. Employees, however, “did not want to end up working until they died because they could not afford to retire.” Many employees were actively seeking other work, using this role model as motivation to find employment that would better provide for their future. 

Neither the owner’s nor the employees’ perceptions were reality. When questioned, the worker told me he really did not have to work nor was he particularly loyal, but said that, “if I ever met his wife, I would know why he was there”! 

Our perceptions can cause us to make decisions based more on feel than fact — a dangerous and unreliable driver when making significant decisions.

We miss much in life when we assume to know what another is thinking, or when we limit what they can contribute by acting on our first impressions.

We have all heard someone interrupt another by saying, “I know what you are thinking …” or simply complete another’s sentence only to hear, “That is not what I was going to say.” When we assume what someone else thinks or can contribute, we discount anything they might say or do to improve a situation.  

Rather than defining another’s abilities through a potentially inaccurate first impression, it is better to ask questions, listen to responses and drill down to establish their capabilities. Finding out what someone can contribute by providing an environment that allows him or her to utilize their knowledge as they leverage their experiences to realize their potential will accomplish much.  

We unconsciously establish both floors and ceilings whenever we allow our first impressions to determine the “worth” or value of another. Perhaps a more constructive approach would be to provide support and encouragement to an individual as he or she seeks to define and establish their own reality within the framework we define as currently acceptable. 

We tend to fulfill our own prophecies and find that others can be limited by the ceilings we perceptually place upon them or the floors we set as acceptable standards when we allow our first impressions to determine our expectations.

Some individuals refuse to set goals for fear they might fail, preferring to experience success in whatever they say or do by measuring progress rather than results. While we should measure progress to identify how far we have come and how far we must still go, it should be to determine how close we are to the accomplishment of a goal rather than a validation of past success or an excuse for failure. We should use accomplishment as a springboard toward future success rather than as a resting place from ongoing change. 

Had someone not imagined flight and then sought results through practical efforts (rather than stopping when their thoughts had materialized), we may never have left the hangar at Kitty Hawk. 

The first impression most had of Albert Einstein was a distracted individual having poor math skills who would never fit into society — an impression he did not accept as a definition of his worth and value.  He chose to use the “label” as a springboard to accomplish what he dreamed possible rather than settling for what others thought probable.

When working with people, if we establish high expectations, great things happen. We may find comfort but will rarely experience satisfaction should we settle for something less than the best. Since individuals tend to rise to the level they are expected to reach — to accomplish the objectives that have been established for them (but not often much more than that) — it is important that we overcome our tendency to label people when we meet them, choosing instead to maintain an open mind as we seek astonishing results.  

While someone labeled “mediocre” or “lacking” during a first impression does not often realize excellence, mediocrity will not find a place in the world when we truly believe that all people are capable of accomplishing great things.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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