When working with people, our first impressions often influence the way we respond to and react with them - they presuppose what another’s strengths or weaknesses might be because of the way they look, act or present themselves. We limit (or elevate) their ability to contribute solely upon what WE THINK they might be able to accomplish. 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 and examination of the results they produce, we predispose their performance to rise only to the level of competence our minds have established. Some dangers inherent in giving in to our first impressions – particularly for those privileged to lead or manage others – would include:
Pre-conceived judgments, opinions or basing “today’s reality” on “yesterday’s history” about a person can negatively influence our thoughts and actions – often encouraging us to make inappropriate and potentially harmful decisions.
Our perceptions can cause us to act more on what we feel than what may actually be fact – a dangerous and unreliable driver when making significant decisions. The way others look, dress or speak can indicate much about their actions, reactions and thoughts BUT it can also mislead us into limiting (or elevating) their capabilities. When we label an individual based on what they look like, sound like or appear to be we potentially lose the potential they might bring to our organization – then wonder why the person did not blossom as we hoped they would have when hired. People tend to make judgments based on first impressions but must look beneath the surface when determining the true value of an individual. Acting on what we think or feel can also mask the “root causes” of a situation or hide the value of an individual. Delving into today’s political world, MUCH is being said about “who hacked whom” in our most recent election and who valued most from the secrets that were disclosed. Focusing on the perception that “hacking is wrong” tends to minimize the fact that what was “revealed” was wrong – that we are more concerned with HOW our secrets are exposed than with the fact that they were questionable actions in the first place. Great leaders take the time needed to identify (and grow) the strengths of those working for them while nurturing (and developing) their areas of weakness. Unless (and until) we look to leverage the abilities of those we lead we will never be able to overcome the disabilities that we all bring to the workplace.
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 another 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 capabilities. Finding out what someone can contribute by providing an environment allowing him or her to utilize their knowledge as they leverage their experiences to realize their potential will accomplish much. Good managers like to win and often utilize the capabilities of others to accomplish their defined objectives. Great leaders provide support and encouragement to individuals as they seek to define and establish their own reality within a broad framework which has been communicated as being safe and acceptable – allowing them to learn from (rather than trying to prevent them from) failure as they exceed established expectations..
We tend to fulfill our own prophecies when we allow our first impressions to determine our expectations of others. We limit those around us when we establish ceilings that define what we feel is their full potential and build floors that establish how far they might be able to fall. Keeping others safely wrapped within a cocoon of expectations may protect them but will never allow them to transform from a caterpillar to the butterfly they were meant to become.
Some individuals prefer to experience success ONLY by achieving a specified result rather than by measuring progress – by finding satisfaction ONLY in reaching the destination rather than experiencing pleasure in every step along the way. They find fulfillment in performing as directed rather than seeking new and innovative solutions. Rather than focusing only upon our end results, successful leaders measure progress to identify how far they have come and how far they have yet to go – progress that can help determine how close we are to the accomplishment of a goal while moving from past success, previous failures or finding satisfaction in how far we may have advanced (rather than looking ahead to what mountain we may yet climb). Great leaders leverage singular accomplishments (their own as well as those of the people they lead) as springboards propelling them towards future success (rather than as resting places from ongoing change). Had someone not imagined flight then sought results through practical efforts (rather than stopping when their thoughts had materialized), we would never have joined the birds in the sky after applying the dynamics of upward lift and power. The first impression teachers had of Albert Einstein was his being a distracted individual having poor math skills who would never fit into society – an impression he did not accept as a final 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. IF we feel that our first impressions are infallible – and seek to determine our direction based on our pre-conceived values of others – we will thrive ONLY if we can accept that our initial judgments may change and that what was once considered to be a reasonable expectation may, in fact, be but a foundation for future growth. Should we choose to limit the contributions of others through our unfounded first impressions, we actually hinder our own success (as well as the worth and value of whomever we lead).
Great leaders find that it is easier to work with the strengths of individuals than it is to develop their weaknesses – and that communicating lofty goals and expectations is a precursor to their becoming valued contributors. Do not let your first impressions (be they overly positive as they may set others up to fail OR too minimal as they may limit individual contributions) and misconceptions be the driving force in determining success. Looking at what those working for us can accomplish (rather than what they have done) – then equipping them to achieve greatness by fulfilling their unique and individual potential – will allow us all to grow and thrive.