One of the extracurricular activities I have learned to enjoy is Improv. Improv allows me to test my reaction time in a variety of different interactions and keeps me focused and in the moment. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun. More than often, many exercises end in fits of laughter as the scenarios made up on the spot tend to end in some level of confusion or absurdity that, at the very least, have the participants smiling and enjoying the moment.
Aside from the fun of it all, Improv teaches us a lot about ourselves and how we interact with others, but one lesson that has stood out for me the most is the inaccuracy of first impressions. We have been taught the value and validity of first impressions, and there are plenty of authors and speakers that support first impressions as an accurate way to evaluate someone you meet.
I do believe there may be some value to first impressions, in some circumstances, but not as much as we think, and I caution anyone who asks me whether they should trust their first impressions. My answer is a definite, no. Not only do I believe you shouldn’t fully trust your first impression, if you rely on it too much you will miss opportunities for securing a great hire, developing a new friendship, possibly finding your perfect mate, securing lucrative business relationships and generally expanding your horizons with many different people from different backgrounds, experiences and walks of life.
When I start a new Improv class, I look around the room and, without much effort, begin to form impressions about the new students. This is a natural reaction that is steeped in plenty of research that points to our snap judgments as a part of an evolutionary process based on our tendency for self-preservation to determine whether or not any new person we meet is friend or foe. Besides the irresistible inclination, I do this as an exercise to some extent because I wonder how accurate first impressions are. Through the years, I have learned from experience not to take my first impressions seriously. The guy who seems to be somewhat standoffish, sitting quietly at the back of the room, within hours becomes the most humorous and animated participant in the class. The young lady who appears quiet and withdrawn can belt out a tune like no other in our karaoke exercise and becomes the life of the class by week two.
Whether it be in an improv class or recruiting candidates, as I have done for the majority of my career, I would say if I had to trust my first impressions completely and claim they were accurate, I would have missed out on some great hires. I believe there are too many factors that affect our first impressions, which create much room for error when trusting your first instinct.
Here are four reasons why you shouldn’t trust first impressions:
- It could depend on how your day is going. Some days, they are brighter than others, feel lighter and somehow make everything look a little better. The sun is shining, and so is everything else. That includes the candidate that just walked in the door for an interview and seemed to have a great smile on their face and an air of confidence. On an opposite day, that same person might turn you off in seconds, although you may not be able to put your finger on it. Are we fickle? I don’t think so; we are human and like any other affected by things going on in our environment.
- It could depend on how their day is going. Perhaps on the way to the interview, the candidate was cut off in traffic and felt a little frazzled when they arrived. When they walked into the room, they appeared slightly nervous and distracted but composed enough to sit through the interview. Something, to you, however, seemed a little bit off, so immediately, you were on guard.
- It could depend on several different biases, from the person walking in the room looking similar to someone you liked in the past, like your wonderful granny, or reminding you of someone you didn’t like, the guy who bullied you in high school, to biases based on all the experiences you had in your life and things you were incorrectly taught by those you looked up to. I think it’s fair to say biases are wrong, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, if only on an unconscious level.
- There are plenty of books and speakers who try to show us the importance of body language, how to dress, and how to create an excellent first impression. This is more reason to be skeptical about trusting your first impression. People make a living advising others what to do to create a great first impression, which may have nothing to do with authenticity. This is precisely how cons work they know the best way to look to gain your trust.
The problem with first impressions in hiring or any other encounter is that those who believe in the importance of first impressions will then spend the rest of the time with the person in the interview or meeting trying to convince themselves their first impressions were right. Because it feels good to say, ‘I knew he wasn’t the right fit,’ or on the flip side, ‘I knew she would be a great hire the moment she came in the room.’ This self-fulfilling process makes us listen less than we should as we are steered off by our first impression.
As Alexander Todorov points out in his book, Face Value, ‘The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. ‘faces don’t provide us with a map of the personality of others. Rather, the impressions we draw from faces reveal a map of our own biases and stereotypes.’
Improv has taught me that my first impressions are rarely accurate. This lines up with my experience in recruiting as well. Whether you are hiring or looking for a job, my advice is to put aside your first impression. Instead, as improv teaches us, ‘deeply listen’ to those you are interviewing. Ask the right questions and take the time to determine who the person is, what their core values are, and what their experience means, well beyond the first fraction of a second. If not, you will miss out on a great hire or on the other hand, hire someone because they looked the part but was unable to deliver.