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O.K. Carter: 30 seconds may determine whether you get that job or that promotion or that client

🕐 4 min read

Spend some time preparing for that first impression or you may not get a chance for a second one.

The old maxim about having only one chance to make a first impression turns out to be all-too-true.

In the workplace, that first impression can easily impact – fairly or not, accurately or not – everything from happiness on the job to promotions to income.

University of Texas at Arlington Assistant Professor of Management Wayne Crawford makes this field of study, what he terms “impression management,” (aka work-life interface) one of his primary interests. So much so that his research on the topic is often cited – and published — by publications as varied as Psychology Today or the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

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Crawford can recite a vast body of research on first impressions, but the nitty gritty is this: People begin forming an impression as soon as they see someone’s face, a process that continues with remarkable (and not always easily reversible) speed.

“Research finds that the process may take less than 30 seconds – even without your saying anything,” Crawford said. “An initial judgement will be made just based on appearance — posture, grooming, dress, smell.”

Crawford says the power of first impression is so strong that if someone is given only a photograph of somebody and told a little about him or her, that early perception will persist even when an actual meeting and talk occurs.

“First impressions are strong even in the face of new information,” he notes.

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Those kinds of first impressions, he says, are made not only with newly met employers but also with new potential clients, the difference being that within a workplace there’s often time to remediate a conflict between the way employees see themselves and the ways others see them.

Is that fair, accurate and reasonable? No, often not, Crawford says to all three. But his research focuses on reality.

There’s also this: First or early impressions are definitely a two-way street.

“Most new employees, for example, have already made up their mind about whether they’ll stay with a new job and organization or look for something else within the first 30 days on the job,” Crawford notes.

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Is it important to employees that their bosses see them the same way the employees see themselves? Yes, Crawford says, it is, a process he calls “self-verification.”

“You want people to see you the same way you see yourself,” he says. “As it turns out, it is really detrimental if employees aren’t able to live out who they are at work and worse if their employer doesn’t welcome that. If the dissonance is strong enough, it will often end up with people looking for other opportunities.”

Which brings up the big question: Can people manage first impressions to their own benefit?

Crawford’s short answer: “Yes.”

The trick in doing so requires a bit of thinking and also a level of emotional intelligence in that there’s no right way to interact with every person.

“Don’t be hyper with a low-key person or low-energy with a high-energy person,” he says. “Think of it as subtle mirroring.”

And then there are the big three for first impressions in the workplace:

• “Be authentic. If you can’t be authentic, not only are you not going to be happy there, your bosses aren’t going to be happy with you.”

• “Be reasonably vulnerable. Seek advice, make connections, don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.”

• “Be confident in the skills you have but know that when you ask others for their expertise that you are verifying their sense of themselves. That’s almost always a winner.”

Other tips?

Crawford recommends dressing slightly above the level that would be expected for a first encounter. Work on that sincere smile (whether it’s sincere or not). Make frequent but brief eye contact. Mirror a little but not excessively. Know that coming on too strong will be viewed negatively for a host of reasons.

And finally, he recommends borrowing a tip from How to Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive by author and business consultant Harvey Mackay: Make warm contacts, not cold contacts.

“With so much social media out there it’s relatively easy to research most people – LinkedIn, Facebook, Google them,” he said. “Find out if there are common areas, from colleges and acquaintances to special interests. The more you know about them, the easier it is to establish rapport and make a great first impression.”

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

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