When should first impressions stick?

Stereotyping distorts personnel management

Conrad Weisert
© Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago—20 February 2010

NOTE: This document may be circulated or quoted from freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.

Forming a first impression

Most of us have a tendency to form and stick with first impressions of people we encounter in our professional roles. That's sometimes useful, but at other times it can limit the value of a staff member. Here are four examples from my own experience:

  1. A mid-level I.T. manager at a large petro-chemical company insisted on categorizing every staff member as either technical or practical. Whenever we formed a committee or task force he insisted that it had to have a balance of technical and practical people. If you were in one of those categories you had absolutely no credibility in the other. If you expressed an opinion outside your assigned role, it would just be ignored.

    Obviously, the career path into management was mainly for the practical people. The more technically competent you were, the less likely you'd be seriously considered for an organizationally responsible role.

  2. I was once engaged to evaluate the documentation developed in a massive project for a large insurance company. In the course of examining documentation I attended a couple of project team meetings, at which it became clear that the team had absolutely no chance of meeting the committed system delivery date that was still being promised to the customer.

    When I discreetly approached the project manager with my concerns, he dismissed me abrupty, reminding me that my role was documentation specialist. You can guess how the project turned out.

  3. On my first day with new project management client I made a presentation to key staff members in a conference room. The mid-level manager who introduced me had found me through a contact at a local university where I had taught a course. In his introduction he emphasized my connection with the university. From that time on his boss characterized many of my recommendations as "academic".

  4. Stereotyping works not only to discredit people but somtimes also to immunize them against negative consequences. At a facilities management company an incompetent account manager made a mess of every assignment he was given. But the man looked like a manager. He spoke well and had a commanding presence in meetings. "We didn't give poor Jeff the support he needed," declared a regional manager in explaining why he was about to give Jeff yet another high-visibility customer contract to mismanage.

Some people grow

An incompetent professional may be able to apply himself and acquire greater skill. Most people can learn from their mistakes. The mistakes I made in my professional career have contributed greatly to the knowledge I apply and the judgment I exercise in both managerial and technical activities.

People also grow into different roles. We should never assume that a superior programmer can be a competent systems analyst or that a superior analyst can be a competent project manager. But neither should we assume that one can't.

Different roles call for different skills and abilities. Some people master a single role and stick with it throughout their careers. Others expand their interests through study, experience, or just native ability to be capable of playing multiple roles equally well. Both kinds of staff members can be extremely valuable. Career paths and salary scales should reward them both.

In any case, a wise manager never ignores any source of information or opinion. If your network technician raises a concern about a project estimate, if your database administrator suggests improvements to the user interface design, or if your user liaison tells you about some wonderful new programming language, listen to them. They might be seriously misguided, but they took the initiative and deserve a hearing. Despite stereotypes they can sometimes save a project.

but others don't

There is one kind of shortcoming that people rarely outgrow: dishonest or treacherous behavior.

I was once presented with the opportunity to hire a man who had been my peer in a large corporation five years earlier. To my boss's surprise, I declined to hire him despite his impressive résumé.

In his deputy project manager role he had assisted the project manager in submitting weekly status reports indicating that the huge project was on schedule and would easily meet its committed target date. A few weeks before that target date his boss, the project manager, resigned and left the company. The deputy followed as quickly as he could. The project turned out to be nearly a year from completion at a huge cost overrun. Investigation confirmed that there was no way that the project manager and his deputy hadn't known for some time that the project was in deep trouble.

Is it possible that an employee who commits a dishonest act can reform and thereafter lead an ethical professional life? Perhaps, but unlikely. How could we put our trust in him or her?

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Last modified 21 February 2010