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No second chance at a first impression


SEVERAL years ago when I was fresh out of university and looking for a job, I managed to land an interview for an editorial position that I was extremely keen on.

A combination of nerves, social awkwardness, and insufficient preparation resulted in one of the most painful interactions I ever had in my life. The interviewer - who would have been my editor - was also struggling mightily to find common ground with me, in a conversation that was steadily going downhill. And then she asked what kind of books I liked to read. Without thinking, I responded: "Chick lit."

To this day I don't know what possessed me to say that. It's a well-regarded trade publication too and I just kissed my reputation goodbye. And it wasn't even true that I liked that genre! Yes, the last book I had read at that point was one but the answer just came out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

I think the editor winced and the interview was hastily concluded. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but being the earnest, overly serious 22-year-old that I was back then, I went home and bawled my eyes out. That was probably my first experience with the consequences of making a poor first impression.

My foot-in-mouth syndrome might have been amusing during my school days, but in the working world, you know what they say: there is no second chance to make a first impression.

I spoke to Martin Gargiulo, professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, who said that first impressions can be very lasting, even if we think of ourselves as being objective. In fact, it is much easier and faster for us to make up our mind than to change it.

"This is the basis of speed dating. We tend to form an opinion about someone pretty fast. It may not be strong, but it is fast."

He says that people form an impression of someone new based on cues such as how they talk, dress or behave. Once that happens, we become more attentive to cues that confirm our views, while filtering out those which don't corroborate. This, he says, is known as "confirmatory bias" in social psychology.

Mollie Kohn, chief commercial officer, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, of Aon Hewitt, concurs, describing first impressions as having a "halo or horn effect". This refers to a cognitive bias that allows a good trait (halo) or bad trait (horn) to overshadow the rest.

"Our brain receives so much information and data all the time, so it tries to be as efficient as possible. So we tend to make snap judgements. Once you make a bad impression, it's really hard to change it."

For people such as me who suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome, it's a double whammy. But slinking away and hoping for the best when you made a poor impression in the office is not an alternative.

Eugene Chang, senior principal of Korn Ferry Hay Group, said that first impressions affect your personal brand. He points out that in this day and age, workers no longer operate in silos, and it will impact your promotion chances if people don't want to work with you because of a negative impression.

"Certain work cultures can be quite toxic, and if you walk in as a new person and make a bad impression, rumours can start and people may label you before you even get a chance to prove yourself," he added.

But if it's any relief, all three experts I spoke to believe that perceptions can change. A key theme is the need to overcompensate.

According to Prof Gargiulo, it is a process where the offending person needs to produce much more positive cues over time to counteract the negative impression formed. It entails self-awareness to know how one comes across to others, and then deliberately behaving contrary to what the expectations are.

If repeated long enough, others should start to be more open to seeing the positive cues and changing their views.

Mr Chang on the other hand suggests taking a more direct approach to changing a poor first impression- by apologising to the other party first if your intentions didn't go across correctly. Call it out and don't let it fester, he advises. After that, one needs to follow up by making the extra effort to overcompensate for a much better experience with the other person.

Sometimes, the best approach to changing someone's mind is not going through the person directly. Mr Chang said: "It's possible that there's no recourse even though you have done everything. You can then work on proving yourself to people whose judgment the person values, sort of like a testimonial."

This hopefully will make the other party rethink the situation enough to a point where they can start seeing cues that they may have neglected before.

In other words, it takes a herculean effort to repair the damage done by a poor first impression. But let me end this piece on a more positive note.

My botched job interview had an unexpected twist at the end. You see, I didn't just throw my hands in the air and moved on to the next job. That very day, I decided I had nothing left to lose so I penned a letter thanking the editor for her time and also apologising for some of the thoughtless things I said. I did not make excuses for my poor interview, but tried to articulate my views in answer to some of the questions she asked.

Miraculously, I got called back for a second interview! I prepared for that like there's no more tomorrow. It went well and I got the gig in the end.

Years later, I found out from my interviewer that it was my email to her that made her decide to give me a second try. By that time, we had already built a great working relationship and she was in stitches recalling the whole incident. She confirmed that the whole interview was really so disastrous and she had made up her mind not to call me back. But lucky for me, my post-interview note was sincere enough to cause her to relent a little and the rest, well, is history.

While there was a happy ending in my case, I have learnt over the years that do-overs don't always come by. To correct a first impression, one requires at least a second chance to be able to do so. But not all situations allow us to have the luxury of time to change people's minds.

Negative first impressions can be reversed, but why put yourself through all that extra work? It is easier to build on a good foundation, rather than try to fix something that is broken. Be self-aware, prepare, be in the moment and pay attention; this way, you are far less likely to have the problem in the first place.