You walk through the door 3 minutes before the meeting starts. You take a seat near the head of the table and arrange your things. Someone offers coffee, but you ask for water — sparkling if possible. You swiftly look at your phone, turn it off and lean back in anticipation.
In five minutes, your new colleagues, clients or business partners have acquired first impressions that will influence your relationship for years. Do you know what those impressions are? They often don’t. And yet they will decide how much they trust you and which facts, tasks and responsibilities they will share with you.
In addition to speech and writing, people communicate in subtle ways that are often hard to explain. Whether your first impression of someone is trust, curiosity, unease or suspicion has been labelled ‘chemistry’, ‘instinct’ or ‘subconscious’, but psychologists studying business interactions support such hunches with evidence.
Making conscious, Sherlock Holmes-style observations takes time and diverts energy from cognitive functions like running the meeting agenda through your head. Meanwhile, an instinctive part of your brain takes over and sizes people up for status, predictability, friendliness or perhaps almost invisible signals of threat, explain two neuroleadership experts at the Munich Leadership Group in their forthcoming book The Leading Brain.
Such first impressions are practically impossible to eradicate from our memory, like the smell in our childhood doctor’s office. Yet, we are unaware of how we trigger them with our behaviour. Let’s walk through those first five minutes again, this time looking out for clues.
Arriving 3 minutes early made punctual people trust you. Some didn’t notice the difference, including those who arrived late.
Confidently walking to the head of the table impressed assertive people in the room, while others might have seen it as arrogance.
You started arranging your stuff instead of speaking to others, which introverted people appreciated. If you lined up your belongings in perfect right angles, some judged you as narrow-minded or inflexible.
As marketing experts can testify, your choice of sparkled water speaks volumes about you, and people interpreted it depending on their own habits.
Most of us do (or don’t do) these things with little attention. That is well done, says Nobel laureate D. Kahnemann in Thinking Fast and Slow, because trying to change such micro-behaviours is stressful and futile. But if the impact on our business is so great, is there any way to turn awareness into something more?
Zero-Cost Talent Management is a concept I share in speeches and workshops, where we learn to use mundane work tasks as tools of assessment. Whether or not you have access to modern psychometric tools, the way people meet, great, speak, use emails and walk corridors can become your natural big data resource.
Observe yourself. Perhaps you’ve never reflected on how you enter a meeting room. Perhaps you make effort to act like your boss when you appear. (That’s why I used to carry a leather-bound notebook I never used.) In either case, imagine observing yourself from a mental balcony and guess how others judge your personality, talent, habits and style.
Show who you are. Observing yourself will give you great clues about the value you bring into that meeting room. Arranging your stationery in perfect order is a good sign if you are the financial auditor of the project. Making a mess of the table will be forgiven from the head of disruptive innovation.
Fine-tune when necessary. However, when you find a gap between your true talent and first impressions you could be misjudged. In such cases mild adjustments in your habits could help you over the first five minutes. An executive I coach breaks the ice with playful iPhone covers that balance his otherwise perfectly engineered appearance — a good conversation starter.
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