Can You Change Your Reputation in the New Year?

February 28, 2016 by Ken Nowack

“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”

Joseph Hall

Think of the last time you met someone new in either a work or non-work context.

Any idea what impression you might have made on them?

Making sense of others in a social interaction is not easy — each new person we meet may be a source of ambiguous and complex information. However, when encountering someone for the first time, we are often quick to judge whether we like that person or not.

How Quick Are First Impressions Formed?

Neuroscientists peg most brain processing stopwatches at a range from three to seven seconds. Nearly everyone forms first impressions in less than a half-minute.

A recent study (published in the journal Nature Neuroscience) sought to investigate the brain mechanisms that give rise to impressions formed immediately after meeting a new person. It was conducted in the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, an NYU professor of psychology and neuroscience and one of the co-authors. Using fMRI, the researchers found two areas of the brain (posterior cingulate cortex and amygdala) that seem to be associated with the neurobiology of first impressions.

So, others draw conclusions about our intellect, social skills, anxiety level, confidence and warmth in a very short period of time.

But, what if their first impressions are really incorrect?

Can First Impressions Be Modified

To investigate the persistence of first impressions, Betram Gawronski and his research team showed participants either positive or negative information about an unknown individual on a computer screen ((Gawronski, B., Rydell, R. J., Vervliet, B., & De Houwer, J. (2010). Generalization versus contextualization in automatic evaluation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 683-701)). Later in the study, participants were presented with new information about the same individual, which was inconsistent with the initial information.

When the researchers subsequently measured participants’ spontaneous reactions to an image of the initial target person, they found the new information influenced participants’ reactions only when the person was presented against the background in which the new information had been learned. Otherwise, participants’ reactions were still dominated by the first information when the target person was presented against other backgrounds.

Although these results support the common observation that first impressions are very difficult to eradicate, Gawronski believes they can sometimes be changed and what is necessary is for the first impression to be challenged in multiple different contexts and settings.

Another recent by Srivastava, Guglielmo, & Beer (2010) found that stability of perceiver effects (peer ratings in students) increased over time on ratings on each of the five personality factors including extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism– Week 1-2: .37; Week 2-3: .55, Week 3-4: .65 ((Srivastava, S.; Guglielmo, S. & Beer, J. (2010). Perceiving Others’ Personalities: Examining the Dimensionality, Assumed Similarity to the Self, and Stability of Perceiver Effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 520-534)).

These results suggest that first impressions are certainly not unchangeable and at least four interactions or more (each interactions was for at least 40 minutes long as they engaged in leaderless group activities) are needed to solidify the lasting impressions we have about others.

How Impressions are Formed in Teams

Another way to evaluate how impressions (our reputation) stand the test of time is to explore how leaders emerge in new groups and teams. In two recent studies by Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley, dominant leaders appeared to achieve influence in their groups in part because they were seen as more competent by fellow group members ((Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in groups? A competence-signaling account of personality dominance. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 96, 491-503)).

To measure task competence, they included ratings of task expertise and general cognitive abilities. To measure social competence, they included ratings of leadership and verbal skills by observers. They used a set of group exercises that was designed to be engaging and evoke a lot of discussion. After all group sessions had been conducted, outside observers watched a videotape of the sessions and rated group members on the same dimensions on which group members rated each other.

Consistently, the group members who spoke up the most were rated the highest for such qualities as “general intelligence” and “dependable and self-disciplined.” The ones who didn’t speak as much tended to score higher for less desirable traits, including “conventional and uncreative.”

These findings suggest that dominant individuals (social, talkative, confident) may emerge as early leaders in group settings by appearing helpful to the group’s overall success as opposed to aggressively grabbing power. It seems that dominance leads to influence at least in part because it entails more confident and initiative-taking behaviors. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the groups in the study used the first answer anyone shouted out — mostly ignoring the ideas of others even if they were actually better.

Anderson and his colleagues also designed a second study to evaluate if it was possible that people who talked more did so because they simply had more to contribute. They found that people who spoke up more were again more likely to be described by other group members as “leaders” and likely to be rated as competent in the task they were working on. Being more verbal and assertive seemed to signal “leadership presence” to the other group members at least initially.

Another set of leadership studies also provide insight about whether these verbally participative leaders in a new group or team continue to create positive impressions over time. Two longitudinal studies (7 weeks) explored leadership dynamics in unstructured groups in which participants were strangers. These individuals were subsequently rated negatively by the group as a result of arrogance and high-handedness at the end of the 7 week period ((Paulhaus, D. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 197-208)).

These findings suggest that just acting confident and speaking up seem to be the initial ingredients for the emergence of leadership but fade in the end.

So, the next time you think you have created a bad first impression, try to be at your very best with the individual(s) you interacted with and plan on having multiple interactions (4 to 7) in different contexts.

And if you really want to create a first impression of being a leader, as Stephen Covey suggested long ago, “seek to understand before being understood” to ensure you are viewed as not narcissistic and overly dominating to others in new groups/teams you join….Be well…

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Relate

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  1. very interesting post Ken. It made me think of a book I just started about introverts called Quiet…have you heard of it or read it? Wonder if there is a connection. Thanks…

  2. It’s amazing to me how quickly impressions are made. I think this also has a huge impact on recruiting and hiring in the workplace as well–sometimes before you even meet a candidate. I’ve seen statistics on how quickly recruiters decide whether or not a resume goes to the “investigate further” pile versus the “trash” pile and it can be as quick as 6-8 seconds or as much as 60 seconds. That’s not a lot of time to consider the qualifications of an individual.

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