Beyond first impressions Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002

I was recently thinking about something I read a while back. I don’t recall the source, but the quote was, “You learn about life when you learn to love the people you don’t even like.”

There’s a great deal of wisdom in that little phrase, for all of us. Whether it’s in school, the workplace, or even the home, there are times when we are not certain how much we really care for the people around us. According to a quip from Reader’s Digest a few years back, a little boy wrote a letter to God.

He said. “Dear God, I can’t understand how you can love everyone in the whole world ... There are only five in my family, and I can’t do it!”

When I was starting out, many years ago, I worked with a large group of salesmen in a rather confined area. One fellow seemed to have a smart remark every time I said something. This went on for nearly a year. Finally I suggested we take our differences outside. I’m certainly not proud of my lack of maturity, but it was a long time ago.

The other fellow looked at me with what could best be described as shock. And I’ll never forget his next words: “But I just wanted to get your attention so we could be friends.”

Strange as it may seem, that little exchange has had an important impact on my life. When I form an instant dislike for another person, I make a sincere attempt to determine why I feel this way. What is it about this person that causes me to react to him or her so negatively?

In all honesty, after thinking about it for a time, if I do find something I don’t like, it probably isn’t that important. In most cases you may never see the person again. So why get bent out of shape over a perfect stranger?

On the other hand, if this is a co-worker, some effort should be made to discover a common ground that allows you to work together without this becoming an issue. If you’re managing someone you don’t like, that can be a serious problem.

When you accept the mantle of leadership, you must make a conscious effort to treat all of your people equally. Granted, this doesn’t always happen in the real world. We all are subject to some degree of prejudice, envy and personal bias. But in these difficult times, with the stress and the proclivity toward violence, people in management — in leadership positions — must make an extra effort to provide guidance and act as positive role models.

At least 20 percent of the people in any organization suffer from low self-esteem. They often feel unimportant. They don’t see their work as important. They feel left out. They are the people who hesitate to offer suggestions and ideas to improve performance.

And yet, in my experience, they often have a completely different perspective on the tasks they are performing, which can provide valuable insights for improving performance. The tendency often is to avoid them because they are not aggressively outgoing. They don’t readily speak up with their ideas.

Take a few moments to say hello. Show appreciation for their efforts. Solicit their suggestions.

I can’t honestly say I ever became a social buddy with the guy I mentioned, but I do run into him on occasion. And we do have a friendship of sorts, which we wouldn’t have had if first impressions had won out.

William Armstrong, a management consultant for 30 years, is president of Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm Armstrong/Associates. Reach him at (412) 276-7396 or by e-mail at