How to Make a Bad First Impression

Male_Right_Foot_1I agree with my colleague Betsy Winkler; first impressions are key, and their importance is often underestimated. Whether you have a job interview, a first meeting with a new boss, a meeting with a potential customer, a networking coffee or a first meeting with your girlfriend/boyfriend’s parents, here are some sure-fire ways to get off on the wrong foot:

  1. Be late. Are you guilty of cutting it too close on timing? (I confess I am at times.) Why? Sometimes you’re cranking to get one more task done before the next meeting. Other times, you underestimated the time and focus required to end the previous meeting on time. Or maybe you weren’t keeping close track of the time or simply didn’t think it was a big deal to be a couple of minutes late. Whatever the reason, most people get annoyed when they have to wait on you. Or they question your time management skills. Or they assume you don’t care about their time. Additionally, you are more likely to be flustered and distracted if you fly from one call to the next one without taking time to make the mental transition. All this contributes to leaving a bad impression.
  2. Don’t prepare. When you’re not ready, you communicate at least three things to the person you’re meeting. First, you don’t think they are important enough that you need to prepare. Second, you are lazy or don’t care. And, third, you can’t manage your time well. Plus, you likely feel less confident and competent as you interact with them. And that comes across.
  3. Make it all about you. The more focused you are on you and your agenda, the less focused you are on the other person, their interests and how you can help them. And the more out of touch and uninterested you are with others and their priorities, the worse the impression you leave.
  4. Ramble and go into lots of uninteresting details. Unless you are Robin Williams or “the most interesting man in the world,” most people will prefer that you get to the point. And if they want all the gory details, they will ask.
  5. Multitask. Nothing says “I am too important to give you my full attention” like multitasking during your first meeting. (Or any meeting.) If you can’t resist the Pavlovian urge to check email, Facebook or Twitter while you’re having a live conversation, then be prepared to leave the impression that you are not really interested in the other person or talking with them.
  6. Ignore your personal appearance and hygiene. Appearance is to first impression like first impression is to overall impression. Faded jeans, business suits and low cut tops all send different messages. What message do you want to send? And don’t forget that just because you can’t smell your coffee breath doesn’t mean others can’t.

First impressions aren’t always fair, and they can be misleading. But they are real, and they are important. Basic consideration and interest in the other person, along with some planning about what impression you’d like to leave, can help you get started on the right foot.

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Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior leaders start and stay on the right foot. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.