Lessons from Severus Snape
A few years ago, I went back to the town I went to school in. I met up with some friends I had been to school with (a long time ago).
When I met my friends, they were sitting with an old man whom I vaguely recognised. It turned out he had been a teacher at my school.
We had a very pleasant evening reminiscing over old times. I enjoyed his company very much.
What was surprising is that when I was at school, I strongly disliked this teacher. I never enjoyed being taught by him.
Now, he seemed like a nice person. I was learning that my school boy judgements of someone might not be that accurate after all.
Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter series will be familiar with a more dramatic example of making the wrong judgement about someone – in the character of Severus Snape.
Throughout the story, many of the other individuals in the book, as well as most readers, got the wrong impression of Snape. At the end of the story, Snape turned out not to be the monster we thought he was, but instead one of the heroes of the story.
These are instances of a pretty universal phenomenon – the phenomenon where we find out that our judgements of someone else turned out to be wrong.
We have heard their words and seen their behaviours and come, usually very quickly, to a judgement about them. We have limited information on which we have based this impression, and often ignored anything which might lead to a different judgement.
The common reality is that our judgements about people, like most people’s assessment of Severus Snape, are often wrong.
It starts with those dangerous first impressions
There is an old expression “first impressions count” and the associated follow-up that “there’s no second chance to create a first impression”. This is worth remembering because many people will judge us on first impressions.
For instance, it is thought that most people make up their minds about an interview candidate in the first few minutes of a job interview. This is prior to asking the most important questions on which the judgement should really be based upon.
Imagine you are going for an interview. Now, consider that you are going to be judged by first impressions. Obviously you should try hard to create the best possible first impression.
But, when you think you are going to be judged on first impressions you probably consider that as unfair. There is so much more to you than that first impression.
But let’s turn the table around. Rather than imagining you are the one being judged, you are the person doing the judging. The sad truth is that you almost certainly judge some people only on first impression basis.
This is not just unfair – it will mean you miss out on all sorts of opportunities from people who could be great to work with. You ignore them because of your probably poor first impression.
First impressions can create an overly bad or an overly good judgement about someone. I am not advising you not to form first impressions. That is impossible. We automatically make judgements about people based on first impressions. I am asking you not to be fixated on this first impression.
As you interact and observe the person over a longer period of time, even if this is as short as an interview, keep yourself conscious of the judgements you are forming.
Try to moderate them as you find out more about them. Challenge yourself – does the judgement you have formed really stand up to all the information you have?
The persona adopted
The problem lies not only with first impressions. Snape did not just create a bad first impression – he continued to reinforce this with ongoing unpleasant behaviour.
Some people adopt a certain persona or way of interacting at work which is not a reflection of who they truly are. Often, we judge such people on how they make us feel, rather than what they achieve. What they achieve is a much more relevant judgement in a professional situation.
When you judge someone as difficult, unlikeable or demanding, try to work out if the person you see is the real person. Might it be a role or persona adopted in specific situations?
At school, how many of us had poor impressions of teachers we did not like, but who on reflection in later life, we had to admit did a good job of educating us.
Some of us have to work with people as difficult as Snape. You would have to be a saint to have given him the benefit of the doubt. But there are many people whom we form bad impressions of unnecessarily.
If we take the time to get to know these people a bit better, or if we judge them on what they achieve rather than how they make us feel, we may create a much more positive image.
Avoid getting fixed on your first impressions. First impressions rarely give the rounded picture on what we should really judge people on.
When you find yourself developing negative impressions of someone, take the time to work out if that is who they really are, or if it is just a way of interacting.
Give people a bit more time and take the effort to get to know them and you will find they are really much better than you thought.
Of course, there will be some people you will never like. Even then, don’t be hasty to judge them harshly.
It’s great when we like the people we work with, but professional relationships are not always about making friends.
They are about getting work done, achieving outcomes and delivering results. Judge the people you work with on how well they do these things.
Richard Newton is an internationally renowned author and consultant. He has written 12 books, which have been translated into 17 languages – including the award winning The Management Book. His latest book Managing Your Team Through Change was published in December 2014. Richard works worldwide through his consultancy Enixus Limited, helping corporations to deliver organisational change and performance improvement. His details can be found on LinkedIn at uk.linkedin.com/in/richardjenewton/en, and he can be followed on twitter at @RJNtalk. Send us your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Consulting Corner articles, click here.