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Advice / Job Search / Networking

This Is How You Recover After You Make a Really Bad First Impression

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Not too long ago I was in a situation where I was sitting across from a C-level executive with my palms sweating, my heart racing, and my stomach in knots. It’s not like this was an abnormal meeting—as an HR professional I meet pretty regularly with senior leaders to advise them on ways we can partner together.

But for some reason, in spite of that fact, I wasn’t feeling relaxed or confident. The vibe was off, and I was beyond nervous the entire time. When asked to further explain some of the data I’d referenced during my presentation, I froze for what felt like five minutes before mumbling some incoherent response that did nothing to show how many years I’d worked in human resources.

The kicker? This was the first time I was meeting with this particular executive. I didn’t have the luxury of resting on my reputation or past performance. This was his only interaction with me, and it was clear from the way he pursed his lips and abruptly ended the meeting that I’d totally bombed it. In a matter of seconds, I’d ruined my chances of showing how partnering with me would be of any value to him. There was no way around it: I’d made a bad first impression.

Whether you’ve scheduled time to grab coffee with the new person who’s joined your department or finally landed an interview at your dream company, making a positive and lasting mark as early as possible is a crucial part of career (and life) success. 

Thankfully, the saying—“You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression”— while technically true, doesn’t account for the fact that you can redeem yourself if you do happen to get off on the wrong foot. Here are three things to keep in mind as you work toward building a stronger connection in that next meeting.

Focus on What Happened and Why

While you may be fully aware every time you don’t represent yourself well off the bat, the reason for the subpar exchange is often unclear. Taking the time to really think about and reflect on the underlying factors at play during an awkward or unremarkable encounter is a great way to get to the bottom of why things didn’t work out the way you’d anticipated.

In the case of my disastrous first meeting with the executive, the fact was that I wasn’t adequately prepared for our conversation. I distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d just wing it. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening as I realized how off-base my idea actually was. Focusing on what I could’ve done differently—instead of all the things that went wrong—put me in a unique position to be ready for my next interaction with him.

Admit Your Mistake and Move On

Although you may be tempted to assume that once someone has a negative first encounter with you, there’s not much that can be done to fix it, you should avoid this kind of thinking. Oftentimes the simplest way to move forward is to just fess up to whatever you’ve done to start things off on a not-great note, and then ask for a do-over.

Saying something like: “I wasn’t as prepared as I should’ve been the last time we spoke; can we start over,” or “I’ve been giving our last conversation some thought and I wanted to clarify what I meant” can do wonders to redirect any misconceptions people may have of you.

Be Consistent Going Forward

Once you’ve gotten clear on what went wrong—and you’ve admitted it to yourself and to the other person—don’t stop there. An important part of the process of recovering from a less-than-perfect first impression is to make sure that the second time (and every time going forward) consistently highlights the qualities you’d like to be known for and eliminates the qualities you want to steer clear of.

For example, if you came across as disorganized the first time you met your new boss, it’d be in your best interest to ensure that in every subsequent interaction, you exhibit skills in planning, prioritization, time management, and attention to detail. As you consistently work toward showing how much you excel in these areas, it’ll be a matter of time before you’ll start to be seen that way by others as well.

First impressions are formed almost instantly and people can be very stubborn when it comes to changing their initial thinking. This makes overcoming negative perceptions extremely challenging. While you’ll likely never become BFFs with everyone who had the wrong depiction of you initially (no matter how hard you try to change their minds), you can absolutely transform a rocky first meeting into a mutually beneficial and constructive professional experience.

And if you’re wondering what happened with me and that executive, I was able to recover from our initial debacle by being 110% prepared for every interaction we’ve had since then. While I know our relationship is still a work in progress, every time we engage, I feel confident I've done my best to rewrite the narrative formed about me the first time we met.