How Do You Recover After a Bad First Impression?


Everyone eventually finds themselves in a situation where that first impression goes south with a tone-deaf comment to a prospective boss, having the wrong outfit on for an interview, or spilling a drink all over a client. It is possible to recover from a bad first impression with enough time, effort and some nuanced skills. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of “No One Understands You and What To Do About It,” a book about social interaction and what psychological factors play into it. The first impression you have of someone often is rooted in subtle bias, she says, and the first few things people notice about you often factor heavily in how you are perceived. Another tendency is to only see things that play into that first impression and reinforce your view of someone based on your initial interaction.  “People see what they expect to see,” Dr. Halvorson said.

Dr. Halvorson says that most people assume that other people see them the way we see ourselves. The good news is you can learn to clarify the message you are sending to others once you understand “the lenses that shape perception.”  She says that spending a lot of facetime with someone can help repair a bad start.  If you have made a bad impression with a manager who is about to become your boss, look for ways to build familiarity with them, such as arranging to go to the company gym or the cafeteria at the same time as your new boss.  Start with casual encounters to help them get to know you better.

If you were late for a meeting, arrive early every other time for a long time in the future to build back confidence in you.  You will need to be patient and take the time that is necessary to restore your reputation as a reliable employee.

A 2015 review of 119 studies led by Elizabeth Focella, a  researcher at the University of Arizona, found taking the following steps may help erase a bad first impression:

  • Show you have a sense of humor and can poke fun at your own blunder to help smooth over a tense situation.
  • If you gave a poor answer during a job interview, follow up with work samples that show more clearly your abilities and skills.
  • Offer to help others reach their goals to help you gain greater acceptance from them.
  • Allow yourself to be more transparent and share details about your experiences, to help gain greater sympathy and understanding from someone who has a bad first impression of you.

Source: WSJ, “After a Bad First Impression…”, by Sue Shellenbarger, August 23, 2017

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