It’s a moment few can avoid: You meet someone you want to impress but wind up starting with a glaring faux pas. That tone-deaf comment to a prospective boss or spilled coffee all over a customer can wreck everything.
showed up for a job interview at a California clothing company years ago, she knew it was over. She had the digital-marketing skills the company needed, but the interviewers wore Birkenstocks and casual clothing of natural fabrics and she showed up in heels and a black tailored suit. “I could immediately see the look on their faces, thinking, ‘Why is she here?’” says Ms. Copeland, a career coach in Memphis, Tenn. She never got a second chance.
It’s possible to recover from a bad first impression. But it takes time, effort and some nuanced skills.
“First impressions are very sticky,” says
author of “No One Understands You and What To Do About It,” a book about the psychological factors that shape people’s interactions. Those impressions are rooted in biased thought patterns, including the primacy effect—the tendency for the first few things people notice about someone to influence how they interpret information later, Dr. Grant says. Another pattern, called confirmation bias, causes people to notice only details that confirm what they already believe. “People see what they expect to see,” she says.
When Ms. Copeland got off on the wrong foot with new acquaintances again a few years later, she knew how to repair the damage. At a leadership program she attended, other participants told her they saw her as cold and unfriendly at first. “I’m an introvert and I can be somewhat formal,” she says.
But her colleagues said they felt friendlier to her after she talked with them one-on-one. “I took the time to get to know each person” and find common interests, Ms. Copeland says.
Spending a lot of facetime with someone can repair a bad start, Dr. Grant says. If you’ve made a bad impression on a manager who’s about to become your boss, arrange to work out at the gym or hit the company cafeteria at the same time she does–not to stalk her, but to build familiarity with a casual greeting or wave.
Offering lots of evidence to counter a bad start can help. “If you’re late for a meeting, make sure you’re early every other time in the future, for a long time,” says
founder and president of Resume Strategists in New York. Erasing a bad first impression takes patience, she says. “You can’t just snap your fingers and make it go away.”
Ms. Gelbard, who is in her mid-40s, was disappointed at a recent networking event when a senior executive in his 60s assumed she was younger and lacked senior-executive status, she says. He kept dropping such comments as, “That was before your time, so you couldn’t relate.”
She patiently worked to undo that impression, emailing him via LinkedIn, where her profile shows her 1996 M.B.A. and her years of experience as an executive-career consultant. She later went to a gathering where she knew she would see the executive and others she knew at his level. She wove more evidence of her experience into the conversation. In time she overcame the executive’s first impression and he became a valuable contact.
Drawing attention to common bonds, such as rooting for the same sports team, can help dispel bias, says a 2015 review of 119 studies led by
a researcher at the University of Arizona at the time.
Poking fun at your own blunder can ease the tension. A little self-deprecating humor can show you take your mistake seriously and understand how you made the other person feel, says
a former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and author and speaker on career issues.
If you muffed a job-interview question about your past accomplishments, follow up by sending work samples showing your skill, Ms. White says. “You want to dazzle them, to show that the underlying impression you made doesn’t matter,” she says.
Offering to help the other person reach an important goal can nudge her toward acceptance, Dr. Grant says. Use the collaboration as an opportunity to showcase your skills.
Opening up and sharing details about your experience can help erase others’ negative views by evoking empathy, says the 2015 research review by Dr. Focella, a consultant with Portland, Ore.-based Research Into Action.
interviewed a job applicant at a previous employer several years ago who made a terrible first impression by confessing that he’d done prison time for dealing meth. Mr. Gates, an Austin, Texas, minister and former police officer, joked with the man about having been on opposite sides in the criminal-justice system, then made a conscious decision to move beyond his initial shock and re-evaluate the applicant, Mr. Gates says.
The man quickly showed “he wasn’t the criminal he’d been in a previous life,” Mr. Gates says, by describing his self-improvement efforts and handing Mr. Gates a list of people willing to serve as references.
“He came prepared to answer the tough questions,” Mr. Gates says. He decided to take a chance and hire the applicant, and the man became one of his best employees.
Work & Family Mailbox
Q: Regarding your column on improving your performance by sitting near a high achiever: What is the effect of sitting next to poor performers or negative people?—M.L.
A: A few studies have explored this. Sitting near a truly toxic worker—defined as someone who is eventually fired for misconduct—sharply increases the likelihood of being fired yourself, according to a 2016 study of 2,454 workers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School. The effect is weaker among employees who trust their managers, and it wears off quickly after the toxic employee leaves.
Another study found employees whose colleagues in the same office were absent, fired or reprimanded for misconduct at an above-average rate had their own issues. They called in sick themselves 16% more often and also committed misdeeds 25% more often, compared with workers who had higher-performing office mates. The study covered 28,642 employees at 442 offices of a large Italian bank.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org