How to overcome a bad first impression to make a better second one

Understanding the psychology of perception helps

Understanding a little psychology is the key to overcoming a poor first impression, writes Heidi Grant Halvorson, an associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University Business School, in the Harvard Business Review.

Bad first impressions are often the result of missed social signals, explains Halvorson. She shares the story of a friend who inadvertently mistook a suggestion to try an item of food during a job interview as an invitation to eat off of the interviewer's plate. In this case, the mistake caused problems, and he was not offered the job.

The psychology of perception

It is easy to be misunderstood, says Halvorson, pointing to research suggesting that subtle emotions are difficult to read. "The majority of times that you've thought, 'I made my intentions clear' or 'They know what I meant,' you didn't and they don't," she writes.

Fortunately, the causes of misconceptions are "highly predictable," according to Halverson, so by deploying tips from psychology, people can strategically compensate for the misperception.

The first thing to understand about the psychology of perception, she writes, is that it occurs in two phases:

  • Phase one is automatic and occurs immediately. People subconsciously evaluate you based on cues like your appearance, body language, and stereotypes.
  • Phase two is more analytical and comes later. The perceiver tries to integrate "disparate data" and works harder to "draw informed, thoughtful conclusions about you," Halvorson writes. But the second phase does not always occur.

Overcoming a bad first impression

When people fail to make a positive first impression in phase one, they should try to trigger a more positive phase two judgment. Whatever you do, it should be "plentiful and attention-getting in order to activate phase two thinking," Halvorson writes.

In some cases, overcoming a bad first impression, such as when you miss a deadline, can be as simple as making sure you turn in subsequent assignments early.

In more complex cases, Halvorson recommends activating people's "desire to be fair" to give yourself a better chance of being positively reevaluated.

She points to research showing that when people are reminded to be fair, they are more likely to guard against biases that can influence their perceptions. People who are trying to overcome a poor impression can activate the desire to be fair by complimenting a "perceiver on his 'fairness,' 'unbiased assessment,' 'keen perception,' or 'uncanny accuracy' in evaluating people," Halvorson writes.

If all else fails, Halvorson says the most effective strategy is to "ensure that you have a role in their success." Look for opportunities to collaborate with the person or take on greater responsibilities. When their goals are dependent on your performance, they are more likely to engage in the thoughtful "phase two" thinking that helps overcome a negative initial impression.

Seizing the moment

Sometimes, the best way to get someone to think about you differently is to help them in a moment of stress. Halvorson notes that when people are stressed, they often attempt to reassert control over their lives in other areas by being more thoughtful and detail oriented. Connecting with someone during one of these moments can prompt them to think more deeply about their perceptions of you as well.

Related: Your team is overworked and overwhelmed. Here's how to lessen the load.

Using these strategies, Halvorson says it is possible to get people to see you in the best possible light. "If you do, then it is really never too late to make the right impression," she writes (Halvorson, Harvard Business Review, January 2015).

The takeaway: It is easy to unintentionally make a bad impression, but one expert argues that overcoming someone's negative judgment is achievable—you just need to make a strong, concerted effort to do so.

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