How Lazy Is Your Brain with First Impressions?

He didn’t need CPR. But my client felt like the wind was knocked out of him by a senior executive’s dismissive behavior. I’ve recently watched several coaching clients who are great contributors get discouraged because they were on the receiving end of a seemingly unfair, unexplained judgment. It’s an exhausting distraction.

We all make snap judgments. (I’ve been catching myself in the act lately.) The scientific explanation is that our brains have so much information continuously coming in that categorizing our observations is a necessary short cut. It allows us to form opinions and decisions at an acceptable pace. But we pay a steep price when we don’t check up on assumptions about the capabilities of colleagues. Every negative categorization – including subconscious ones – can play out as self-fulfilling, with a detrimental impact on both team performance and individual engagement.

Which of these common short cut assumptions trip you up?

  • Someone who speaks very differently from me probably isn’t as thoughtful or smart as I am (e.g., a regional accent, faster/slower pace, more/less precise)
  • Someone who isn’t “put together” (by my subjective standards) probably isn’t a sharp or organized thinker (e.g., physical appearance, mannerisms, posture)
  • Someone who seems “more sensitive” (by my subjective standards) probably cannot handle a tough conversation that we should have

If you picked at least one such offense that you commit, can you identify the specific individual who is most impacted by your short cut? Then, in your next few interactions, ask a few more questions, bring a bit more patience, and seek out fresh learning from them.

[Note: Some of our most pervasive and damaging mental short cuts involve unconscious bias around race and gender. That is too large a topic to do justice here. But you can always try on your own to self-assess and adjust your thinking.]