How do you make a good impression when you’ve never met the person you’re engaging with (and probably never will)?
Whether you’re starting a new job, joining a new team, or engaging in a one-on-one meeting with someone for the first time, the initial impression you give carries a lot of weight.
You’ve likely heard of the seven second rule – the length of time you have to relay your entire personality to a new acquaintance in a positive light, and HRM has previously highlighted the important role that attire can play in making those seven seconds count.
But with ‘offices’ increasingly shifting to the online space, virtual first impressions should start to receive the same level of attention.
How do you show warmth online?
Whether they’re aware of it or not, people are looking for two specific qualities when they meet someone for the first time: if they can trust them (warmth) and if they can respect them (competence). This is the conclusion of Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy, who has researched the topic for fifteen years.
While competence is crucial in a professional sense, Cuddy’s research suggests that trust is more important. This makes sense, it’s a much more important quality in an evolutionary sense.
As Cuddy says, via Medium, “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve achieved trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”
But what if you work in a virtual team, as so many of us do these days (one study suggests 70 per cent of professionals in the world work remotely at least once per week). How do you convey your warmth and competence via an online platform without overdoing it on the emojis. Example: I’m smart 🤓 , capable 💪 , and warm 🔥 .… I’m also allergic to dairy 🤢 .
Tell the whole story
Jeffrey Cummings of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, alongside Alan Dennis of Indiana University, explore virtual impressions in their September 2018 paper ‘Do SNS Impressions Matter? Virtual Team and Impression Formation in the Era of Social Technologies’.
In the past, he says, virtual impressions have been limited to the interpretation of information sent in an email/instant message, but workplace social media platforms enable the development of “socio-emotional processes in virtual teams”. No longer do you have to take John’s word that he’s a great marketer, you can go to his company profile and verify his credentials yourself.
So it’s quite easy to establish competency online, what about that other elusive quality, warmth?
Cumming says the development of social capital relies heavily on being able to identify with others. Much like small talk is integral in a face-to-face meeting, so too is sharing miscellaneous information about yourself online. Cummings says the “about or summary/bio” sections of an online profile shouldn’t be glossed over.
It’s not easy and it can feel a little cringeworthy to talk of menial details about yourself to no one and everyone at the same time, but Cummings says it pays off.
“This section provides initial statements made by an individual arguing that he/she possess features that would help increase their credibility to be trusted or identify with others.”
Cumming notes that a simple claim might not always be enough. Sometimes you need to include certain “data”, such as your home town or university, to backup your trustworthiness and establish common ground.
To tie a bow around your neatly packaged online trust levels, Cummings says having some kind of external backing to legitimise claims is helpful. That’s why LinkedIn have included the ‘endorsement and comment’ features.
Cumming’s experiment contained three variables: relational capital (measuring individual trust in others and identification with team members), structural capital (measuring the social capital within the team), and cognitive capital (measuring knowledge, expectations and values).
“Relational social capital appears to elicit the strongest perceptions when a fully composed argument (claim/data/backing) is included in that profile, while cognitive and structural social capital may only need a claim and data to portray high perceptions of these dimensions. This has important implications for future interactions as this initial impression of relational social capital will accelerate trust formation in a virtual team environment,” says Cummings.
Showing your human side online
The more relatable you are, the more likable you are. Fast Company reports that one psychiatrist in particular felt credentials alone weren’t enough to establish trust. So whenever he met with a new patient he’d make a point of dropping his pen or spilling his cup of coffee, pointing out a flaw in an attempt make himself appear more “human”.
This is a technique from psychologist Elliot Aronson who, in the 1960s, conducted an experiment that found those in superior, high performing roles who “commit a clumsy blunder” increase their interpersonal attractiveness, because mistake = vulnerable and vulnerable = relatable.
How does this translate online? The article goes on to mention a senior woman, considered to be cold, who started to introduce spelling and grammatical mistakes in her emails to colleagues. As a result, her workplace relationships improved.
Final pieces of advice
There’s so much advice out there on making a good first virtual impression. To finish this article off, here are three tips HRM considered to be the most helpful.
- Organise your digital assets
With people highly likely to “Google” you prior to your first meeting, it’s imperative that your professional social networks are up to scratch with sufficient information and an appropriate image, and that others are set to private. I don’t have to harp on about the damage a single photograph can do, you work in HR, you know.
- Emoji for clarity 🙊
While I poked fun at this earlier, emojis can be helpful. Research from Penn State suggests that when customer service professionals engage their clients with an emoji or two, satisfaction levels are increased. “The emoticon is even more powerful than a picture.” says S. Shyam Sundar, one of the researchers.
Of course, there’s a time and place for these things, so proceed with caution (and make sure you understand the double meanings behind certain emojis).
- Try and keep communication flowing
As we’re always plugged in these days, a late response to an email usually means one of two things: I’m too busy or I don’t care enough. Not a message you want to send if you’re trying to develop an online relationship. In one study, 80 per cent of respondents consider four hours to be an appropriate response window. Of course, this is not always doable. Sometimes you are just too busy. Just try and be as consistent where possible.
I’m not sure if the seven second rule still applies to online first impressions, but if you’ve made it this far along in the article I’ve probably taken up at least 300 seconds of your time. Do you trust me yet?
Have an HR question? Access online HR resource AHRI:ASSIST for guidelines, information sheets and policy templates on different HR issues.