Power and importance of first impressions

TalentSorter StaffEmployee Interaction, Engagement

(Note: this discussion originally appeared on Canadian HR Reporter here)

Four HR experts, including TalentSorter’s Jan van der Hoop, engage in a back-and-forth discussion (below) about a live presentation given to the Strategic Capability Network by Mark Bowden. Parts of Mark’s powerful messages about authenticity and the impact of body language can be found in this excellent TEDx clip:

Ian Hendry: The way in which Mark Bowden presented himself to our audience, I think he convinced us of the power and importance of first impressions. Whether it be potential candidates, new employees joining the organization, networking to make new professional contacts, meeting with suppliers and so on, we likely don’t take enough stock in how people perceive us in that first critical introduction. Obviously, it’s impactful from a personal brand perspective, but as I think about the organizational brand, I feel we do so little to magnify the importance of first impressions.

Jan van der Hoop: I agree about the “overlooked first impressions” thing, Ian, but I believe the implications go far deeper. If we can accept that it is a leader’s job to connect with people, engage and align them, it can’t be done from behind a desk.

Connection is not achieved by memo or email.

Fundamentally, people will not be engaged if a leader is not engaging. And yet today, most “leaders” are working managers with full project and task lists of their own.

How can they possibly step back and make the time it takes to connect and engage?

The other little gem Mark dropped is a reminder that stress and fear quite literally make people dumb. They choke the brain’s ability to process. How much is that costing us in lost productivity and sick time?

Christine Discola: The magnitude of implications on leadership and, frankly, all human interactions is astounding, and yet very few of us are aware of this implication.

The damage a leader can cause by believing he has done a great job presenting ideas, conveying vision, winning buy-in — only to hear back from others that in fact what they heard was very different based on their negative assumptions, is immensely costly.

So the challenge for leaders is not to assume they have “communicated” just because they delivered words. The challenge is to ensure their message, passion and trust are duly conveyed through how they have connected with their teams.

Jan: But there’s a sine qua non here. Mark touched (too briefly, I think) on the question of perceived intention. And the tricky bit is that it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

It doesn’t matter how clean a leader’s message is, how passionate and trustworthy she believes she is, everything she says or does is filtered, interpreted and remembered differently by each individual.

Effectively, people are making stuff up about us, all day long, and what they decide is based more on them and their filters than it is about us.

So, how do leaders gain clarity themselves on what their intention truly is? And then how do they convey, demonstrate or reinforce that intention so cleanly and consistently to others that it can overwrite old beliefs and “clean the filters”?

Christine: Good questions to contemplate and not easy. I think the first challenge is the easier one — if we assume authenticity. If leaders are authentic, have a clear vision and have courage, then likely strong intention can be identified.

The challenge of conveying through the physical what we want received in the emotional seems to be the more difficult of the two questions.

We heard from Mark that leaders ought to consciously decide to control their body language; to actually do away with common habits and be purposeful in how they project their message.

But we know that some habits are hard to break. It takes self-awareness and a strong desire to convey optimism, but it also needs to be learned.

It is striking that we focus so much on developing leadership competencies and standards that define and reflect our company cultures, yet rarely in those competencies and standards do we see how to deliver these.

Jan: Your comment “If leaders are authentic…” twigged me. To me, that speaks more about who they are than what they know or have done in the past.

Anyone who’s really listening (or who simply stops overriding his limbic brain’s signals) can sense inauthenticity a mile away. Authenticity has nothing to do with how many checkmarks I get on the company’s competency checklist.

Are we measuring the wrong things when it comes to competency models?

Paul Pittman: These are persuasive delivery skills for reducing resistance in new prospects or audiences but I wonder about their application for ongoing team leadership.

They are not authentic and without practice will appear so and, therefore, are not sustainable — reverting to type as most will in time, I suspect, may be more damaging than a weak first impression.

You get one chance to make a first impression and dozens more to ruin it. Leadership is not a first impression — selling ideas and products, maybe.

Business leaders must be mindful of these techniques and can always improve but should we expect them to modify their natural selves?

Mark was entertaining and made his own unique first impression. The references to our time on the tundra and in the cave were engaging but I wonder if our individual control mechanisms have also evolved in tandem.

My impression is that business is excessively alert to missed opportunities and jumping to misleading initial impressions positive and negative — have you done a due diligence lately?

I would further suggest that international practitioners, when meeting a new contact, expect some accommodation of the host’s cultural body language customs simply because there is no excuse not to be respectful these days. Could this muddle the impact?

Verbal language and technique in leadership settings, in my experience, have as much if not more effect than body language, particularly when leading multinational teams.

Mark alluded to deeper insights into behavioural-based handling of different types of situations and relationships and I personally would really enjoy having him do a deep dive into some of those.

My guess is that that is where these techniques are most powerful.

Ian raises the interesting perspective of using such techniques to create organizational first impressions — (such as) the old IBM, McKinsey, General Electric — and employment and business branding (which are critical as we face the millennial apocalypse). It could make for an interesting second discussion.

Christine: Paul, I agree with your observation regarding ongoing application to leadership versus initial first impressions. Body language may trump the words in certain situations (presentations or a sales pitch), but it surely is not sustainable to build a leader’s credibility over time.

If we are to be purposeful in our body language, as Mark suggests, then could some leaders be accused of manipulating impressions by “going through the motions” at the expense of eroding their authenticity?

Jan: I think we all agree — these techniques cannot be used to convey authenticity and purity of intention when they do not exist. It reeks of manipulation and people will sense it.

It’s kind of like putting clean clothes on an unwashed body; it doesn’t take people long to notice an unpleasant smell below the surface.

These techniques do have the potential, though, to amplify intentions. I do believe that, all too often, unintentional and unconscious body language habits can cloud a perfectly virtuous message and cause confusion.

That’s where this material can help leaders, by aligning the non-verbal signals with the spoken word.

And (back to an earlier rant) it’s wasted in an organization where leaders have full plates themselves, laden with projects, deadlines and tasks that prevent them from connecting with others in a meaningful (meaning non-transactional) way.

Leadership and human connection happen in the slack space, and it is exactly that space that has been engineered out of most organizations.

Ian: If time is our greatest enemy, then we must figure out how best to utilize it. If ticking off the job list is more important to an executive team than effectively communicating the message with sincerity, we know how that affects engagement.

Too often, results trump culture and there’s another long argument. However, Mark raised our awareness to a real issue that is very much overlooked in organizations and, frankly, by leadership.

Hopefully we’ve learned something and, more importantly, we can apply it.

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