There’s an old saying that, when it comes to deciding what to wear at the office, you should “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” I’ve always found this maxim a little curious. Mostly because I knew that if I started showing up to the office dressed as Batman, it probably wouldn’t have a positive effect on my career.
I know the intent of the saying is that you should dress “up” to the next level of the organization, and not “down” to your level or below. (And you definitely shouldn’t wear just the minimum pieces of flair…for all you Office Space fans.)
But some recent research calls even this bit of common sense into question. Three researchers at the Harvard Business School designed a series of experiments to test participants perceptions of individuals who deliberately didn’t conform to the norms of dress. In one experiment, professional sales clerks at fine clothing boutiques in Rome consistently judged a hypothetical shopper who dressed down in athleisure as having more status and wealth. In another, students at elite universities consistently rated a male professor who bucked the dress code by wearing a t-shirt and arriving to class unshaven as more competent and higher status than a professor who “conformed” by wearing a shirt and tie and arriving clean shaven.
One researcher—Francesca Gino—even took the experiments out of the lab and into the field by changing her footwear from regular, professional shoes to a pair of bright red Converse sneakers for different sections of a negotiations class for executives. When she wore the red sneakers, she got higher scores from the executives and was perceived as higher status inside the university.
The rationale behind these findings is that nonconforming dress creates an impression in observers that said person can “get away” with their nonconformity because of their status and competence…regardless of whether or not they are high status or all that competent.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that such perceptions only appear when observers are aware of what the norms for the organization are and believe the nonconformist does as well. So if you’re planning on dressing down for your first job interview, it’ll probably backfire. And obviously, if you’re not all that competent at your job this will definitely backfire.
But if you’re already inside the organization and a solid performer, try choosing a specific and deliberate article of clothing that’s louder than normal (red Chuck Taylor’s in a business school classroom for example). Even better, try bucking the dress code in ways that bring your daily wear back so something more authentic to you, and see what happens.
You might get pulled aside by your manager for a talk, but he or she might also want to talk to you about that new promotion.