It is a well known fact that the human brain has the ability to make an assessment about someone within the first three seconds of a meeting. Most of the time this happens without us being aware of that. People living amongst large number of other human beings, some of whom are far from nice and pleasant, have to be able to do so as a matter of survival.
What our mind assesses in those few moments is whether the person we meet is, in simplest words, friend or foe. Can the person you just meet be trusted or not? Even when it comes to business or indeed politics, our key question is always: to trust or not to trust. Nature has taught us that we need to be able to make an extremely quick judgement where to place someone on the scale of trustworthiness.
All this sounds pretty obvious, but we are not always very good at knowing how to use effectively this basic insight. Let us say you go for a job interview. You obviously want to impress the panel with your skills, knowledge, maybe experience and your can-do attitude. But actually the first judgement the panel, often unknowingly, will be making: can this person be trusted? In other words, will this person fit in with the organisation, will we benefit or might our organisation potentially get damaged when we employ this person, can we rely on him or her? Obviously assessing competence is important and in fact we do so remarkably swiftly as well, but a very competent person who cannot be trusted, is a real threat, not an asset. We all know, unconsciously, that a very competent person whom we have categorised as foe actually can be extremely dangerous - at least, that is what our mind quietly whispers in our own ears.
That impression whether we can trust someone or not is based on just a few rather basic indicators: overall appearance, way of dressing, behaviour, maybe spoken language (more in terms of how it is said rather than what is said), body language. Because this first impression is truly super-visual it is actually quite open to manipulation. It is the reason why a con-artist can be so successful. With hindsight their victims always kick themselves because rationally the propositions they fell for made so little sense, but the implicit message that this person could be trusted overruled their common caution. They were not fooled by the proposition itself but primarily by putting the person in the wrong category: based on behaviour, on appearance, on the right things said, a foe was unfortunately perceived as a friend.
So there are two important conclusions to be drawn from this.
First lesson is: make sure you are competent in 'impression management'. Be aware that a good impression is at least half gained. You need to signal in a subtle way that you are trustworthy. You do so for instance through timely smiles and eye contact, way of dressing and in most cases by demonstrating warmth of character and ability to relate to people like expressing empathy as shown by mirroring body language, supporting noises when someone speaks, in some circumstances the way you touch others, your ability to show interest by asking the right questions.
At the same time, there is a second message: do not rely too much on that ability to make quick judgements. You might very well be wrong. Some people are better at making a snap assessment than others but even the best make mistakes. The real challenge is to nurture the ability to assess fast, yet with an imperative to keep an open mind. And importantly, when you made a mistake in that first judgement, it is worth to wonder why.
How to improve your impression management as well as your ability to develop your assessment skill - how to ensure you can really rely on it, yet also knowing the boundaries - are two crucially important tools for success in life. Yet worryingly they are rarely addressed in your education. Simulation games and reflection techniques can really help in getting better at both, especially when mixed with informal learning experience such as through various extracurricular activities.
Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)