Let me begin with a question. How long do you think it takes to make a good first impression? Do you think it takes thirty seconds or less? Or do you think it takes more than 30 seconds?  

If you chose more than thirty seconds, I’m sorry to tell you the client, the employee, or the new relationship has already decided. It actually takes less than thirty seconds to make a good first impression. If you said thirty seconds or less, that’s exactly right.  

And some research shows it’s even as low as a split second. 

So what would happen if we make a bad first impression? What does it take to overcome that? Would you believe me if I told you that the research says that, to overcome a bad first impression, it takes approximately twenty additional encounters? Now, if we make a bad first impression, what is the likelihood that we’re going to have twenty additional encounters with that person? We might, perhaps, if we go to church with them, if we go to school together, or if we work with them. Then we might have that opportunity, but outside those kinds of interactions, we probably won’t have an opportunity for twenty additional encounters.  

How to Overcome a Bad First Impression 

Let’s talk about what would happen if we know we have made a bad first impression. What tool could we use to overcome it? If we knew we had made a bad first impression, what could we do to overcome it? If we knew that we had made a bad first impression and that it was our fault, here’s a tool we use in lots of situations and one we could use in this case. It’s what we call the 6-Step Apology. 

The first step in that apology would be that you state the offense by saying what you did. Then admit you were wrong. Then apologize by saying you’re sorry. Then ask for forgiveness and next ask for accountability by asking the person you offended to hold you accountable not to come across that way again, and then ask if there is anything else that you might need to apologize for.  

Here are the six steps to make them easy to remember. 

Step 1 – State the offense by saying what you did 

Step 2 – Admit you were wrong 

Step 3 – Apologize and say you’re sorry 

Step 4 – Ask for forgiveness 

Step 5 – Ask the person to hold you accountable not to come across that way again. 

Step 6 – Ask if there’s anything else 

When We Don’t Know We’ve Made a Bad First Impression 

Now, I have another situation for you. If we do have regular interactions with someone and actually have an opportunity to try to change a bad first impression, the problem could be that we might not even know we made a bad impression. How would we overcome that? Is it possible that we could make a bad first impression and not have done anything wrong? Is it possible that we could do something that runs through the other person’s hippocampus that caused them to have a bad impression of us, but we really didn’t do anything wrong.  

That can also happen to you. Think about it this way. Have you ever met somebody and you just thought to yourself, “I just really don’t like them, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I just don’t trust them, but I don’t know why.” There could be something in your hippocampus that keeps you from not liking them and you don’t even know why. It could be something as simple as the shirt they were wearing or a smile or a word.  

So how critical are first impressions in our companies and the places where we work? Would you say very low, low, moderate, high, very high? My answer would be very high. I think they are highly, highly critical. If we have a customer and we make a bad first impression, the odds are they’re not going to return or come back a second time. The same is true with you. If you went to a restaurant and you got a bad meal, what’s the likelihood that you’re going to go back twenty more times to be able to overcome that first impression? 

How I Made a Bad First Impression 

Let me tell you about a really bad first impression I made. It was back when I was attending Texas A & M University and I met my wife Sandra. On the night I met her, we ended up dancing for a while. It was clear we liked each other a lot. The following week was her birthday and on her birthday I decided I would go by her dorm room and wish her a happy birthday. That whole first week we had been laughing and joking around and getting to know each other. I’m a little bit of a jokester and probably even more so then than now, and we were laughing about everything. So I decided to go get my mail, go by her dorm room, and tell her happy birthday. I knocked on her door. She answered the door, and I said, “Hey, Sandra. I know today’s your birthday so I came by to say happy birthday. For your birthday, I’m going to let you kiss me on my cheek.” And she responded in a fun way with “Ooohooo.” And she gave me that kiss. Then she opened the door to her room all the way and said, “Hey, while you’re here, let me introduce you to my mother and my older sister.” Can you imagine the first impression I made on the mother and older sister of the woman who is now my wife? I’m not sure about her older sister, but it might not have been just twenty additional encounters. It might have taken twenty years. I say that jokingly, but you can imagine what it took to overcome that bad first impression. 

First Impressions and Their Impact on Transformational Leadership 

As transformational leaders striving to build strong and positive relationships, we all have to be careful about those first impressions and what that communicates to our new relationships. We need to be aware of the importance of first impressions and know how to deal with the situation if we make a bad one. We know that these first impressions contribute in powerful ways to our effectiveness in communicating with each other.

Ford Taylor is a leadership strategist, keynote speaker, and the author of Relactional Leadership. As the Founder of Transformational Leadership, he is known as a man who can solve complex business issues, with straightforward practical solutions, while maintaining his focus on people.