Making a bad first impression on your boss can doom your career - here's how to know if your gaffe is an 'unforgivable sin'

Making a bad first impression on your boss can doom your career - here's how to know if your gaffe is an 'unforgivable sin'

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It takes work to recover from a bad first impression.

  • It can be hard to restore your boss' faith in you after a bad first impression - which is why it's important to accumulate good will from the outset.
  • If you start off on the right foot, you'll have to work pretty hard to fall out of favor with your manager.
  • However, if you do mess up, you'll have to choose between trying to bond with your boss or cutting your losses and moving on.

One woman was only a few days into a new job when she started to make significant changes to her team's workflow. Unfortunately, her boss - who had previously held this woman's role - took it as implicit criticism of everything he had done before. In the months that followed, she had to work hard to make sure he didn't feel criticized by her.

Another person was not-so-secretly angling to be his organization's first COO. During meetings, he'd try to take charge, inadvertently stepping on the CEO's toes. Even when it became clear that the CEO was taking offense, he didn't seem to get the message.

It's critical to start off on the right foot with your manager. And yet, as these examples from leadership expert Michael Watkins illustrate, it's not always easy.

So, if you don't get off to a perfect start, is there still room to ingratiate yourself? Alternatively, if you do start off positively but subsequently mess something up, can you fall out of your manager's favor?


Experts say that, while it's technically possible to re-enter your boss' good graces after making a poor first impression, it's exceedingly difficult. On the flip side, if you establish a strong relationship with your manager, you'd have to do something really horrific to destroy that.

Try to distinguish between 'forgivable' and 'unforgivable' sins

If you've gotten off on the wrong foot with your manager, the first step is to assess the severity of the situation. Watkins, who is the cofounder of Genesis Advisers, a professor at the International Institute for Management Development, and the author of "The First 90 Days," says it's important to distinguish between what he calls "forgivable" and "unforgivable" sins.

A forgivable sin typically has to do with performance or politics: Either you botched your job responsibilities or you damaged a critical relationship within the organization.

An unforgivable sin, however, "breaches your manager's trust in a fundamental way," Watkins said, leading the boss to view you as disloyal. You may very well be unable to recover. It doesn't necessarily mean you'll be fired, Watkins added, but "the relationship may always be rocky."

In fact, a survey by leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman found the No. 1 reason why leaders were rated low on trustworthiness was being inconsiderate, either to their boss or to other coworkers. "They didn't care about other people's problems, but they did want other people to care about their problems," said Joe Folkman, the consultancy's president and cofounder.


The more troubling part? According to another Zenger/Folkman survey, leaders who were able to improve in trustworthiness went from roughly the sixth percentile to the 38th percentile. They redeemed themselves somewhat - but never even approached the average.

To restore your boss' trust, try spending a lot of time with them

Even if it's possible to win over your boss after a slip-up, it will still be an uphill battle.

Watson said performance-related sins are easier to deal with than political sins. It's a matter of acknowledging and apologizing for the mistake, and learning how to satisfy the job requirements going forward. As for political sins, you'll want to strengthen your bond with your boss and show them you're not a threat.

Heidi Grant, associate director of Columbia University's Motivation Science Center and author of "No One Understands You and What to Do About It," told The Wall Street Journal that spending a lot of time with your boss - even just walking to lunch together - can help repair the relationship. So can offering to help your manager hit an important goal, Grant told The Journal.

But if you suspect you've done something unforgivable, you might consider cutting your losses, i.e. moving on to a different boss. If you know you're a highly valued employee, Watson said, you may want to do something else within the same organization.


Read more: A former Google exec has some counterintuitive advice for anyone who wants to be a good boss

Jack Zenger, CEO and cofounder of Zenger/Folkman, shared an example of a client who was known as the "fix-it guy" in his industry.

"He would go into an organization and he would make a bunch of really tough decisions, and he would ruffle a lot of feathers," Zenger said. "He would get that organization turned around in about 18 months." After that, he would leave the company. "He just decided it wasn't worth it to try, once that organization got corrected, to be the next leader."

It's important to establish a 'reservoir' of good will to draw on

If you've established a solid rapport with your manager, you'd have to do something awful to damage that relationship permanently.

As Watson put it, "You definitely can do things that can sour the relationship. But if you've really built that good of a relationship with somebody, you're going to have to work somewhat hard to screw up." He mentioned the "reservoir" of good will you can draw upon.


Interestingly, a third Zenger/Folkman study found that employees who are rated highly from the start tend to be rated highly later on. In other words, the relationship between an employee's performance and a boss' impression might be cyclical.

As Zenger and Folkman write in the Harvard Business Review, they suspect that "the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling." The employees who receive positive ratings feel supported, while the employees who receive negative ratings feel confused or discouraged.

They write, "The leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse."