Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Why Leaders Need To Move Beyond First Impressions

Leadership perception neuroscience

Most of us are probably familiar with the phrase ‘you only get one chance to make a good first impression’. Although the intent of the message is meant to remind us to be mindful of how we show up in that first introduction to someone new, a recent experience had me wondering how many of us are aware of how this can also limit us from seeing the real potential in others, and learning more about who they really are.

The first time I met Eric’s secretary, Lisa*, she came off as a bit abrasive and annoyed – pretty much the opposite of what most of us would consider to be a good first impression. In the weeks following that first encounter, Lisa was certainly more professional, but she still seemed more abrupt than courteous in her interactions with me. As a result, I ended up limiting my interactions with Lisa to polite pleasantries whenever I arrived at Eric’s office.

A few weeks ago when I went to give a presentation to Eric’s team, I was told by one of Eric’s employees that Lisa was waiting for me in the conference room to provide whatever assistance I might need in preparation for my talk.

Given my past interactions with Lisa, I was naturally apprehensive about how much help she would give, not to mention the awkwardness of having to figure out how to engage in small talk with someone I’ve grown accustomed to avoiding.

Right from the start, Lisa was a true professional and provided more than an adequate amount of support and assistance to ensure everything was in order for my presentation. But after we had checked the equipment and I had tested my slides, Lisa and I were essentially stuck in this conference room waiting for Eric and his team to arrive. So, despite my reservations borne from my past experiences with her, I decided to strike up a conversation with Lisa to help pass the time.

Although initially our conversation was limited to idle chit-chat, something unexpected began to occur – Lisa and I were starting to connect. As our conversation progressed, Lisa began sharing stories with me about her work and some of the great things she’s been a part of. Shortly thereafter, we started sharing stories about our families and even a laugh or two about the funny things our kids have done.

In that short time Lisa and I spent waiting for Eric and his team to arrive, my relationship with her changed from someone who I grew accustomed to avoiding, to someone I was interested in learning more about, and who I was glad to have the opportunity to engage and connect with.

Of course, what’s interesting about this story is not just how this one-on-one interaction with Lisa helped to change my perception of her, but what this story reveals about how our brain manages and responds to these everyday encounters we have with those around us.

Our brain is constantly looking for short-cuts in how it makes decisions in order to conserve energy and the limited brain power we have at our disposal on any given day. This reflects in large part the conditions of how our brain evolved, where our ancestors lived in an environment where it was often critical to one’s survival – and to the survival of those under your care – that we make fast decisions based on our initial impressions of a given individual or situation.

Interestingly, this is also one of the reasons why we innately admire leaders who are capable of making snap decisions; that we see this skill as evidence of their knowledge and expertise because this is a trait that our brain is continually trying to achieve.

Now one example of this mechanism that we’ve all experienced is when we start a new job and have to figure out the best way to get to work on time. At first, we’re very attentive to watching how long a given route takes and what delays we might experience to help us decide what’s the most efficient and time-saving way to get to work.

But then something interesting happens – after a few days, we stop paying attention to what route we have to take and our focus shifts instead to going through our emails, catching up with the latest news, or listening to our favourite songs. What’s happened is that our brain has decided it now knows what’s the best way to go to work and stops investing resources to help it figure out we should do next.

This same mechanism comes into play when we meet someone for the first time. In fact, research has shown that within seconds of being introduced, our brain is already deciding whether we like this person or not. In every subsequent encounter, our brain then focuses on confirming that initial first impression or decision that we made about this other person.

What’s important to note here is that our brain is not seeking additional information to get a clearer understanding of the other person. Rather, its focus is on reinforcing our perception because our brain is focused more on creating short-cuts in our decision-making process than on ensuring we have an accurate perception of things. This explains those times when we admit to not liking a particular person even though we can’t exactly say why.

Looking back at my encounters with Lisa, I realized that as a result of that negative first impression, my brain was focused on looking for signs to confirm that initial perception. And this of course impacted the way I engaged with her, which no doubt influenced the way she behaved towards me.

Although we’re all susceptible to this brain mechanism and how those first impressions can limit our understanding of the people we work and collaborate with, it’s especially important that those in leadership positions gain a greater awareness of how this neurological mechanism impacts the way they lead their teams and organization.

As leaders, it’s our responsibility to not only communicate and exemplify a vision that others would want to be a part of and make their own, but that we’re also enabling our employees to bring their talents, creativity, and insights to that shared purpose. And yet, we can’t expect to tap into that discretionary effort of our employees if we’re incapable of seeing their whole selves because we’ve limited our perception of them to those first impressions.

Indeed, as this story reminds us, we need to make time to go beyond those brief encounters and facilitate one-on-one interactions with our employees to discover who they really are – of what matters to them and what would make them feel like they’re contributing meaningfully to our shared purpose, not to mention the commonalities that we share with them – so that we might be more successful in sustaining their interest and drive in following our lead.

This point takes on an even greater importance when we consider the growing demands on the time and attention of those in leadership positions; an external pressure which makes it easier for us to simply let our brains run with those first impressions to decide how we show up in those day-to-day interactions with those under our care.

In many ways, our ability to see and understand the whole individual – and not simply seeing our employees in terms of the roles or tasks they perform in our organization – is becoming an increasingly vital component not only to effective leadership, but to whether we’ll be able to create the right conditions to help our organization to succeed and thrive in today’s increasingly competitive and fast-changing global economy.

*Names changed.

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  1. On October 22nd, 2013 at 3:37 PM LaRae Quy said:

    Loved this post! You are spot-on when you recognize that our brain is not seeking additional information to get a clearer understanding; instead, it's reinforcing our perception of what is going on. Perception is reality: advertisers, politicians, and terrorists know this to be true.

    Often these short-cuts work to our benefit, but it also leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.

    Great reminder about how it happens with first impressions….

  2. On October 23rd, 2013 at 11:52 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks LaRae; I'm glad you enjoyed it. I do believe the more we improve our understanding of these neurological mechanisms operating within our brain, the more we can develop a greater awareness of how its negatively impacting how we lead our teams and organizations.

  3. On October 23rd, 2013 at 7:18 AM Jim Matorin said:

    I agree with LaRae, perception (a.k.a. Blink) is a reality. We owe it to ourselves to be more patient when passing judgement based on first impressions. Also good leaders need to step back and do reverse Blnk, think about the vibes they give off and work at improving how they really should come off given the situation at hand.

  4. On October 23rd, 2013 at 11:56 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I absolutely concur with you Jim and quite frankly, this is not as hard or impossible to do as we might think. We just have to recognize that this is a much-needed investment of our time and focus if we are to be effective as leaders in helping our teams and organization to succeed.

  5. On October 25th, 2013 at 9:43 AM David Tumbarello said:

    Great insight, Tanveer! Although you didn't mention this phrase, as I read your piece I kept on thinking "eye contact, eye contact." I don't know the quality of your eye contact when you first met Lisa, but I assume you had opportunities after that first encounter to look her in the eyes and share eye contact. When I use the term, I am referring to a connection that can only take place when you allow yourself to be with her In the Present. You did that in the conference room, and I can see how hard it can be after the first encounter when something wasn't quite right. My point? People are generally fascinating (to me at least). When the opportunity is right, look someone in the eye be with them in the present.

  6. On October 25th, 2013 at 12:07 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi David,

    While I agree with you that eye contact is important as part of effective communication, that in itself is not enough for us to ensure we don't view others in a negative light.

    As I've written about in an earlier piece, neuroscience has shown that our brain is wired to emphasize negative moments over positive. In fact, as one of my guests on my leadership show pointed out, it takes 3 positive events to overcome the impact of one negative event.

    That's why it's important that we develop an awareness for this neurological mechanism so we can rewire our brains to compensate for this negative emphasis in order to be more effective in how we lead and engage with those under our care.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, David.

  7. On October 29th, 2013 at 3:11 AM Bonnie Williams said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Thanks. This post has made me wonder if there is also a neurological mechanism to trigger and perpetuate CURIOSITY. Where does this fit in the scheme of things? (Or does that come from the heart?;-)

    In your story, wasn’t curiosity that ‘unexpected thing’ that was aroused when you and Lisa began to connect, allowing you to suspend judgment and genuinely interact and engage?

    In retrospect it often seems like kind of a chicken/egg thing but, what it comes down to is, when (mutual) curiosity is an underlying driver for communication, possibilities of discovery are boundless. When you’re sincerely curious about another person, it’s amazing how many short-cuts present themselves.

    Curiosity leads to interest and exploration, which often leads to dialogue and understanding. And maybe a few surprises.

    When it’s brought to the table, curiosity is a pretty handy ‘instrument’ allowing us to move beyond the limits of first impressions or expectations based on roles, performance or shared history. And the beauty of this is that it could be done consciously and intentionally. Brain training?

    Thanks again,

  8. On October 30th, 2013 at 11:16 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Bonnie,

    I agree with you that building up our curiosity is important to improving our communication style, where we're more focused on discovering new insights than confirming what we already know.

    The trick, of course, is to sustain that sense of curiosity, even when we think we've figured things out and despite the rising demands on our time and attention.

    Thanks again Bonnie for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

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