First Impressions: Why You Must Switch Off the Autopilot

When someone visits your home – especially if it’s the first time they have visited – chances are, you spend a little bit of time getting ready for them to arrive. You care about their first impressions.

'A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.' ~ Henrik IbsenClick To Tweet

You might tidy up a bit. You might plump the cushions. You might vacuum. You might make sure you have something nice to offer them to eat. Heaven forbid, you might even bake something really yummy.

You want to make a good first impression, right? You care about what this person thinks about you. Your home. We see our homes as an extension of ourselves. We express ourselves in our choice of furniture. In our choice of décor. In our choices about the things we buy – how many or how few. And whether things are tidy or not. Both inside and outside.

First Impressions at Work

We might say we don’t, but we actually do care about what people think. We care about the impression we leave them with. And we care about the assumptions our visitors make into our character from the homes we choose to live in.

Now if you are a manager, I would hazard a guess that you don’t pay nearly as much attention to the first impression a new employee has of your organisation.

But I assure you – they are making all the same judgments about you, your organisation, your products, and the culture and character of the leaders within the organisation as a new visitor to your own home.

Have you ever found yourself asking a new team member, at the end of their first day (partly jokingly partly not) “will we see you again tomorrow”? Or the next day, when they do come in to the office “hey! You came back!”

Don’t worry – you’re not alone.

There are two things contributing to this.

The first is that you’re busy. I get it.

Schemas, Shortcuts and the Ability to ‘See’

The second is that your brain normalises things that it sees every day. Your work place is one of these things. It is so routine now that you have to work really hard to see things as they actually are, rather than how you think they are. In psychological terms, this is called a schema. You have built a fully functional mental model of the things around you. Instead of seeing the component parts (the messy desks, the Dilbert cartoons by the photocopier, the grime in the staff room) you see ‘your work’. One thing. The way it always is.

This is a useful skill. It allows you to spot something different really quickly.

But it also has a weakness. You stop seeing what is actually there.

I recently wrote an article about my ‘universal theory of leadership’… that leadership is acting entirely without self-interest. If that is the definition of leadership, then one of the most important and valuable skills of a leader is acting deliberately.

Too many leaders and managers (and actually people in general) are on autopilot. They do things the same way they’ve always done them. This is super efficient. You can make decisions more quickly, you can hustle. You can ‘get shit done’. You will demonstrate an action orientation.

This is useful for managers, when they are managing processes and systems where consistency is important. When it is important to be able to quickly spot the difference… the error… the odd one out.

One definition I’ve read about the difference between leaders and managers is that managers focus on making sure things stay the same, while leaders focus on the way things could be. So this makes sense. Autopilot. Safe, reliable, consistent… Until its not.

Switching Off the Autopilot

'Very often, human beings are living like on autopilot, reacting automatically with what happens. What interests me about the life of an explorer is you are in the unknown; you are out of your habits.' ~ Bertrand PiccardClick To Tweet

So how do you switch off the autopilot? How do you become deliberate, and actually choose what to see, what to do, what to say?

First Impressions Autopilot

Funnily enough, the first step is realising that you aren’t.

Pause right now, wherever you are while you’re readying this, and look around you.

No – I mean really look.

What can you see? Imagine that you’re looking for the very first time. Notice the colours. Notice the shapes. Notice how one thing relates to another… or doesn’t.

Notice how what you see makes you feel. Does it feel warm and inviting? Or cold and inhospitable?

Do the things you can see tell you a story? What is the story? Do you think it is the story these things are intended to tell?

To improve your ability to do this, to switch off the autopilot and make deliberate decisions, you need to practice meditation. In some form or other. It could be as simple as repeating the ‘looking’ exercise from earlier in this article once a day. It could be closing your eyes for 2 minutes and following your breath in and out.

It doesn’t really matter – what matters is finding something that works for you.

And next time you have a new staff member joining your team, spend some time thinking about what impression of your organisation you want to make. How do you want that new team member to feel on their first day?

Do you want them to feel like you couldn’t wait for them to arrive, and you’re excited to have them on the team? Or that it’s a bit of an inconvenience having to train someone up…

Do you want them to feel like this is their new home away from home? Or that this is a place that couldn’t even bother to spell their name correctly…

Remember – this is their first day. They are seeing everything. And what they see will create their schema of the workplace.

You only get one opportunity for first impressions.


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