We have written often about what to wear for job interviews and how to dress for the style of your industry and workplace. Well, new research out of the Harvard Business School is adding a twist to much of what the experts have said previously about dressing professionally and fitting in.

A forthcoming paper called The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity demonstrates that by deliberately flouting conventional norms of style and appearance, individuals can actually be credited as having extra clout.

I am probably not the best person to write about this – or perhaps I have the most to learn from it. My wardrobe consists of a collection of identical blue and white dress shirts. Pretty conventional, there’s not a lot of interesting flair there.

According to this study by Harvard business professor Francesca Gino, I might be perceived as more influential and prominent if I deliberately added an eccentric touch such as red sneakers with a suit or a bowtie. That would imply that I am important enough to dress differently from others and have the confidence to wear what I like. (On a personal note, I don’t think that I lack confidence, I just happen to really like blue and white dress shirts.)

A good example of Gino’s theory in action is Steve Jobs showing up at important conferences where everyone else would be in a suit wearing his trademark black turtleneck and jeans. It’s not that he doesn’t know what business leaders typically wear to events, it’s that he’s Steve Jobs and he doesn’t do typical. Mark Zuckerberg meeting with investment bankers while wearing a hoodie rather than a collared shirt is another example of an influential person displaying their clout with unconventional attire.

One of the keys to making this work is that is needs to be clear that your nonconformity is intentional: a confident expression of individuality and creativity. If it seems like you are simply unaware of how you’re supposed to dress, then you risk just appearing clueless or out-of-touch.

To test this theory, Gino’s researchers tried numerous experiments including looking at the way executives reacted to Harvard business school instructors wearing red sneakers with a suit and observing how luxury clothing store employees at shops such as Armani, Christian Dior and Burberry responded to customers shopping in their gym clothes. The nonconforming clothing consistently made people think more highly of the subject, rather than less.

College students also assumed a bearded professor in a t-shirt was of higher status on campus than his clean shaven colleagues in ties.

Unfortunately, you can’t just suddenly add eccentricity to your wardrobe to acquire prominence in a situation where people already know you well. The “red sneaker effect” will only work in circumstances where your actual confidence, clout and creativity are still being assessed.

So while suddenly showing up at work in a silly hat won’t get your promoted, it’s good to keep in mind that people who display their individuality are generally seen as more competent. (Which begs the question – why hasn’t my coworker Elizabeth in her eccentric spangled sweaters been promoted to Vice President of Corporate Everything?)

Source: The Washington Post: The Red Sneaker Effect

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Peter Harris
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