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How to Look Beyond Your First Impressions of Employees

Some leaders believe they can size up employees and their work styles — even people who don’t report to them — based on how the employees look or seem. These leaders make assumptions along the lines of “This is how that person is,” as if there’s no hope for the employee ever to improve or change.

We all make instinctive judgments, based on our past experiences. As leaders, though, we have two crucial responsibilities: We need to adjust our assumptions as new data becomes available and actively seek the best from the situation. Unfortunately, if we operate as if someone’s nature is immutable, we’ll likely miss opportunities to improve both relationships and performance outcomes.

What Does the Data Say?

But it doesn’t need to be that way, so long as we stay open-minded and notice when historical evidence or new data sustains or contradicts our first impressions. Here are just a few examples.

  • A program director I work with has creative ideas and cares deeply about her clientele. Unfortunately, she’s not great on detail, and can easily become defensive if someone finds fault with her when things go wrong. As a result, her leadership often discounts her strengths and talks about her as being both irresponsible and tough to corral. After working with her for just a few months, though, it became clear to me that when she’s treated with a kind of fond and respectful attentiveness, she’s absolutely willing to work more collaboratively — and not only to take feedback but apply it.
  • I was consulting to a relatively small family business when a new president came in. He announced to me after a few meetings with the executive vice president that the EVP was “lazy.” According to the president, the EVP wasn’t taking initiative or managing follow-up, and was much too comfortable with the status quo. The EVP definitely had those tendencies, but I had coached him previously, and knew that if he was treated as a partner, rather than as someone to direct and delegate to, he’s much more engaged and productive.
  • One of my clients talks with conviction about what she calls her “spidey sense” — spider awareness or sixth sense — and she really does seem to have it. She picks up on behavioral and language cues that her colleagues don’t notice. She knows not to take action right away, and wisely waits to see how the employee’s ongoing conduct and performance bear out.

How to Adjust Your Assumptions

No matter what you think about an employee on first contact, try not to categorize or label them. Instead, stay curious and in a kind of assessment mode to see what and how they do when you’re helping them be and do their best. The best way to do that is to ask penetrating questions and then truly consider the answers.

Consider these questions as prompts to substantiate your initial sense of any employee:

  • What data am I using to form my judgment of this person?
  • Is this the total data set about them, or does other data exist?
  • Are there any patterns occurring here, or am I letting one experience make up my mind for me?
  • What are the results this person generates?
  • Are the results useful?
  • Am I having discomfort with their process, even if the results are okay?
  • Am I comfortable with their process even though the results are not okay?
  • What impact is this person having on others?
  • Are they sharing control and credit?
  • Are they taking responsibility?

Not every question needs to be asked in every situation, and the list of questions can certainly be expanded.

The answers may prove your instinct to be completely correct, or you may have to recognize that you misjudged the individual, either on the upside or the downside. When that’s the case, it’s up to you to change your perspective, so you can work together collaboratively to do the best that you both can do for the organization.

Onward and upward,


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