We’ve all been there — accidentally alienated a new co-worker with a bad joke, underwhelmed the new boss by performing below average on our first assignment, or had a client we didn’t just click with. The trouble is that initial impressions are hard to shake.
Humans are quick to “essentialize” the behaviours of others. It’s known as fundamental attribution error. You might have simply been having a bad day, or you might have been off your game because of a recent breakup or death in the family, but your new colleague isn’t likely to extend that generous of an explanation. Instead, they’re far more likely to assume that your performance is an essential trait, making it extremely challenging to overcome their negative perception.
Here are four ways you can begin to overturn their impressions.
The reason people don’t often change their initial impressions is that our brain is optimized to conserve energy; if there’s not a compelling reason to re-evaluate something, then we won’t.
So you need to manufacture a reason by surprising them. Your colleagues may have built up a certain, inaccurate impression of you — that you’re not leadership material because you’re too mousy and quiet, for instance. You can’t expect to overturn that thinking with subtle gestures. You need a bolder strategy to force them to re-evaluate what they thought they knew about you. If you’ve developed a reputation for being quiet and never speaking up, it won’t suffice to talk once in a meeting. Instead, make a point of being the first person to speak, and making multiple comments. If your colleagues have to ask themselves, “What got into him?” then you’re on the right track in beginning to change their views.
Overcompensate over time.
A forceful change in behaviour may get your colleagues to take notice. But if you only do it once, they can write it off as an aberration: Instead, keep up your new behaviour over time, and recognize that in order to change perceptions, you’ll need to do it far longer than the original behaviour.
Get closer to them.
If you’ve started out on the wrong foot with a colleague, it can be tempting to avoid the problem by staying away from them. But keeping a distance is likely to exacerbate the problem, because — since they’re not receiving any new inputs about who you are — it will only reinforce their existing perceptions. Instead, force yourself out of your comfort zone and find ways to get to know them better. Don’t use words; use actions. Once people have a point of view, the best way to shift it is through mounting behavioural evidence.
Finally, sometimes the bad impression your colleagues may have formed has literally nothing to do with you. If you’re patient and continue to act in ways you’re proud of, most people will eventually come around.
It’s frustrating and unfair when we feel misunderstood. But while initial impressions tend to stick, they can (with time, effort, and strategy) be changed, so that your true talents can be appreciated.