Do Clothes Matter To Our Success At Work?

On a recent visit to EHL Hospitality Business School in Lausanne, one thing that stood out was how remarkably well-dressed the students were. The school is one of few universities that has an actual dress code, with students required to dress as they would in a professional context.

“When entering any professional context, your appearance, attitude and behaviour can play a key role in the way people perceive you,” the code says. “Depending on the situation, how you interact with the world and how you present yourself can even give you a competitive advantage.”

Dressing for success

It’s easy to dismiss this as something rather superficial and only applicable to the hospitality sector that is often defined by images of luxury. Research from Temple University suggests the adage of dressing for success might apply rather more widely, however.

The researchers look less at how our clothes make others perceive us but instead at how our clothes make us think about ourselves and behave at work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found that when we feel good about how we look, we perform better in our work.

The findings emerged after an analysis of three distinct aspects of our clothes and their impact on our self-image:

  • Aesthetics. Does the clothing appeal to the senses?
  • Conformity. Is the style of clothing similar to what coworkers wear?
  • Uniqueness. Does the wearer view a piece of clothing as special or difficult to replicate?

The researchers conducted a number of studies that aimed to understand the kind of meaning we attach to our clothes. These found that we often place a strong association between our aesthetic appearance and our personal attractiveness. We also use our clothes to gain a sense of belonging via conforming to group norms but also strive to be unique via distinct clothing.

Changing behaviour

The research also examined the ways in which our clothing affects our choices in real-world situations. They recruited desk-based employees from a number of South Korean companies, none of which had any real dress code, thus freeing up employees to wear what they want to work (within reason one suspects).

Each participant was asked to fill out three questionnaires every day for 10 straight days. For instance, in the morning they were quizzed on their attire for that day at work. At lunchtime, they would then complete a second questionnaire that examined their interactions with colleagues and their level of self-esteem. Lastly, they would complete a final questionnaire that examined their productivity at the end of the day.

The results show that when employees felt like they looked good and that their clothing was unique in some way, this resulted in them having higher self-esteem, which itself made them more productive and more likely to hit their goals. A similar boost was found when clothes helped workers to fit in with any office norms, but this boost only emerged when employees interacted regularly with one another.

“In hindsight, it made a lot of sense because, among the three variables that we looked at, conformity is the most social variable,” the researchers explain. “Conformity doesn’t really matter if you don’t interact with people on a given day. But when you interact with a lot of people, the sense of belongingness has a stronger impact because you are able to compare yourself with a larger audience of coworkers.”

Marginal gains

Suffice it to say, the impact of one’s clothing wasn’t enough to make or break one’s day, but the boost from feeling good was significant nonetheless. Indeed, the researchers found that the boost to our productivity was similar to that found when we plan the day’s activities (at one end) or are treated rudely (at the other).

The results suggest that we can make noticeable improvements to our behaviour by virtue of wearing clothes that make us feel good. While this might not necessarily mean we have to wear a certain dress code, such as the students at EHL, it does mean that we need to feel good about how we look.

While it may seem like a degree of overreach, the researchers nonetheless believe that their findings should prompt managers to at least educate workers on the connection between one’s clothes and self-esteem, and how this can affect their performance at work. This might even extend into the provision of well-styled organisationally branded clothing.

“Clothing is a very important part of everyday life,” the authors conclude. “Managers can inform employees that what they wear can impact their behaviour. This is not about setting a policy of what you have to wear, but of informing employees that they can have a positive impact on themselves.”

This article is republished from Forbes under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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