Posted by: Corina Paraschiv | April 1, 2009

The Importance of First Impressions

The plane was about to crash.  Luckily there was an airport nearby but no one had ever brought a plane without reactors down to the ground.  The chances of a situation like this happening was slim : both reactors had stopped functionning and there was a bug with the manoeuvering of the craft, too.  The controle tower was trying to figure out a solution.  There was a miltary base nearby with many trained men that could come and help on the ground.  A hospital existed, too, not too far by.  It would probably be needed to gather up those of us that would be wounded.  Inside the plane, the captain was trying to see what the best solution was : could anyone in the cabin help out with some obscure expertise?  The clock was ticking and none of us were stepping up to take leadership.  The councelors had abandonned us into the room to work it all out, with a single instruction for this simulaiton game : “save the poeple in the plane”.  Fifteen minutes, thirty, forty, and still we were all uncomfortably seated in silence, reading our role paper, scared to come off as bossy if we did not do something soon.

Ash, my Japaneese pilot plane (in real life) finally said “We have ten minutes left. Should we split into groups?  The ground ppl here, the ppl in the plane there.”   While the groups were forming, I suggested “let’s write on this board all the resources we have together.  If you need anything from another group, check the board to see what they can give you”.  In a heartbeat, we had it all figured out and coordinated, and, as we looked at the documentary about the real plan crash and how the collaboration and leadership of the real life workers, militry, pilots and passengers.

Our plan turned out pretty similar to what was orchestrated by the crew and all those people – and the plane as a result landed safely and only lost two lives, which was pretty impressive in the face of the circumstances.  The lifesaving factor had been the leadership and teamwork abilities of the actors involved.

More than show me the relevance of teamwork (perhaps the obvious conclusion from this exercise), this particular simulation made me realize the importance of first impressions and how we are all aware of it.  Imagine how many more lives we might have saved if Ash had spoken earlier and if we had gotten to the task with a little more time to solve it.  In real life, however, with the urgency of the situation, no one would have wondered about the ” impression ” they might make to their colleagues – the focus was on the task.

But first impressions are in reality a key essential part of building a team — imagine the flight pilot had been really arrogant and the flight attendants really rude with each other and the people in the plane.  Would they then have had the same synergy as a team when the crisis hit?

A recent personal experience in team work indicates to me that, if this is representative at all of people`s experiences with teams in general, first impressions can indeed hinder cooperation.  I was in a team for some time where some members never showed up, replied very slowly to emails and seemed fairly arrogant.  Right off the bat, there was an athmosphere of distrust and a reaction from those who did work and who up to become controling and doubtful of the others.  The interesting thing is that this behaviour in turn fueled more hostile and uncooperative behaviour from other members and in the end this team has performed poorly overall compared to its potential.  Somewhere amisdt the whole experience, I became aware of how our first impressions had in part led to these issues.  I then set the score to zero and offered we forget all past actions and show good faith as of that moment.  Although this system allowed for some progress and cooperation to emmerge, it still did not shake out the impressions and opinions we had of others, and it took much conscious effort to remain impartial when making decisions, assigning tasks, and do other work that implied team trust and cohesion.  It turned out, however, that the first impression was the good one – people who seemed like they wouldn`t be working… in fact did not work for 14 out of the 16 weeks.

This experience has shown me two important points. This may not be true for everyone, but if you are an intuitive person (ex. ENTP, INTP, ENFP, INFJ, ENTJ, etc), then TRUST your intuition.  In the social context where we live, it is hard however to trust it entirely, because you must still give people the benefit of the doubt and act without prejudice.  But perhaps prepare a backup plan, and a cutoff point from where, if things fail to work in a team context, you know how to bring the team back up.  I would add different teams need different types of leaders at different times.  In some cases, they need facilitators only, with mnimal intervention, just to help structure the exchanges.  In other cases, however, they need direction, especially when there is no cohesion and no specific competence or knowledge in the team.

Second, as far as you are concerned, dress nicely every single day, always pay attention to personal hygiene, to your tone of voice, try to be kind and show empathy at any given point.  The first impressions of people who meet you daily for the first time can be critical in later collaborations and exchanges.  Once people have an image of you, it`s hard to change.  Better make it good from the start… and feel great in the process, too!  Nothing like a smile and talk to start a good day!

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