You never get a second chance to make a first impression — but it's probably not the end of the world.
That's according to psychology research from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and leadership coaching company BetterUp, which found that many adults routinely underestimated how much others liked them in small group settings and while working in teams.
Researchers dubbed the phenomenon "the liking gap," and say it could be holding you back more than you might think: There's a connection between how much people think their co-workers like them and how well they perform in their job, study co-author Erica Boothby tells CNBC Make It.
The impacts are far-flung, Boothby says: If you think you're well-liked around the office, you're more likely to give honest feedback about teammates' work, helping your team communicate more effectively and perform better.
The analysis, published last year, built on prior research from 2018 — which showed a persistent gap between how much people thought their conversation partners liked them versus how much they were actually liked.
Luckily, you can translate that knowledge into highly successful relationships at work. Boothby explains how.
Boothby started studying the liking gap for an all-too-relatable reason: She experienced it herself.
After meeting with a potential research partner to talk about collaborating, she found herself racing through a nervous playback of the conversation: Did she actually want to work together? Was she just saying that?
When her husband, who works with Boothby, reassured her the conversation went well, her questioning turned much more meta. "Wait, what's real?" she recalls wondering.
With that in mind, her first tip is simple: Remind yourself the liking gap exists.
When you guess what someone new thinks of you, it's just a guess. There's plenty of information you don't yet know, and your brain tends to fill in the blanks with whatever's already preoccupying it, Boothby says.
Often, that's what "we wish we could do better, or what we could improve for next time," she adds. "We sub in those thoughts for what the other person must be thinking about us, and that's just not true. They're thinking about all kinds of other things, and they have their own concerns."
The next step is taking action.
Say you get coffee with a new coworker, have a productive conversation, but never hear back. While you're busy interpreting their lack of a follow-up as disinterest, they're probably doing the same about you, Boothby notes.
The standstill is like a game of chicken, she says: "Everyone's waiting for someone to do something, but no one does."
So, be the person who follows up.
"Realize everyone's feeling a little bit like this. You just need to put yourself out there and make the first move," Boothby says. "The most likely thing is that you get a positive response back."
When you have a positive interaction with someone, tell them so.
In the workplace, that might look like telling a new colleague that you enjoyed meeting them, and you're looking forward to talking again soon.
"If you had a good time talking to someone, they probably had a good time too," Boothby says.
It's effective for countering the liking gap outside of the workplace, too. Recently, Boothby says, a new friend texted her soon after they first met for coffee. The friend said how much she'd enjoyed their time together, and shared an open invitation to meet up again.
To Boothby, it felt like a perfect example of her own research playing out in real life.
"You also miss out on relationships when you don't do that," she says. "More often than not, we tend to feel positively, and when you do, show it more. That's a good lesson."