The Myth of First Impression Bias Finally Exposed at “Mommy & Me”

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The Big Myth Exposed: first impressions don’t predict performance for anyone, including sales people! All they do is affect your judgment and prevent you from hiring the best person.

I was just talking with a neighbor who’s just finished up her first eight-week experience at “Mommy & Me.” We were talking about the misleading nature of first impressions. She was telling me that five of the 12 mothers were turning into great friends, and all but one of the others were enjoyable company. The big surprise was that when she first met these people, there was only one person she liked, and was thinking about joining another group. Imagine how many friendships weren’t started and people weren’t hired because of negative and misleading first impressions.

This reminded me of a recruiter workshop I held a few years ago in New York City. I conducted an instant survey asking the following questions:

What percent of people do you dislike or feel neutral about when first meeting them? For the 100 or so people in the room, the range was from 60-90%.
What percent of people do you dislike or can’t work with once you really get to know them? The range dropped to less than 10%, even for the most cynical in the room. (Note: when it’s more than this, I’m more concerned with the person doing the ranking than the others on the team.)

Here’s a short version of the same survey you can take for yourself. As you’ll notice, the results are the same as they are at Mommy & Me classes, at any social event, or when interviewing candidates for the first time.

The Big Myth Exposed: first impressions don’t predict performance for anyone, including sales people! All they do is affect your judgment and prevent you from hiring the best person.

Some points to consider about people in general and sales people in particular:

If you find a good salesperson who makes a mediocre first impression, you’ve found an extremely hard-worker who knows his/her product line and understands his/her customers’ real needs. (See the survey results for proof.) These are the people who achieve success due to their persistence, work ethic, and motivation to succeed.
Imagine how many great people get overlooked because some recruiter, interviewer, or hiring manager was more concerned with the superficialities of first impressions rather than the person’s track record of performance.
If you find an average salesperson or co-worker who makes a great first impression, the hiring manager and interviewing team was seduced.

Five Simple Ways to Neutralize the Impact of First Impressions

The two best ways I’ve seen to combat the judgment altering effect of first impressions are to first bring it to the conscious level and then control its power by sheer will or by some companywide systematic process. There’s a complete chapter devoted to how to do this in The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired, but the following techniques will help you get started:

Listen to the judge. Collect evidence before reaching even a preliminary verdict. For interviewing this means waiting a minimum of 30 minutes before making any hint of a yes or no decision. Steps 1 through 3 in the Performance-based Interview were designed to ensure this type of objectivity.
Measure first impression at the end of the interview. At the end of the interview evaluate how the person’s first impression impacted his or her performance on the job. Many people are temporarily nervous and many others are more show than substance. Both problems will be revealed by waiting. More important, you’ll discover that first impressions have very little impact on performance.
Treat candidates as consultants. We assume highly paid consultants are competent when we first meet them. They have to mess up pretty quickly for us to realize they’re not as strong as we first imagined. By giving all candidates the same benefit of the doubt, the interview becomes more inquisitive and discussion-based rather than inquisitorial and demeaning.
Change your standard from possible best friend to strong co-worker. According to the survey cited above, over 75% of the respondents find very few (less than 10%) people difficult to work with after getting to know them. Yet, this statistic is flip-flopped when first meeting these same people. Keep this stat in mind at the beginning of each interview.
Use evidence to make the assessment, not gut feelings. Make each interviewer justify their yes or no vote with solid evidence. I suggest using a formal talent scorecard with evidence (e.g., person was assigned to the turn-around team to eliminate factory waste) to rank the candidate on all factors shown to predict on-the-job success. This is much better than relying on emotions (e.g., “I don’t think the person will fit”).

During the interview we seek evidence of competence for those we like, and incompetence for those we don’t. While many (but not all) of the under-performers are subsequently weeded out, none of the best performers who were temporarily nervous or didn’t meet some artificial standard were even considered. The problem is solved just by waiting until the end of the interview to objectively measure first impression. Sometimes it’s a long wait, but it’s always worth it.

Posted in Franchise News.