In leadership workshops, we talk about what we tell people with our clothes, bags, jewelry, and even water bottles. Some conclusions are roundly agreed upon. If you are wrinkled and frayed, we don’t think that you take your job seriously and that you probably have some time management issues since you can’t make yourself presentable in the morning.
I am not talking about things that we can’t control. Study after study shows that tall people are seen as more intelligent and responsible. I’m almost six feet tall, so this one works to my advantage, but it’s just luck. We don’t get to choose our height.
Our facial structure has a huge impact on how we are perceived by others. A symmetrical face makes us more attractive and trustworthy. However, if our eyes are too wide and our cheekbones pronounced, we are assumed to be aggressive. Once again, not in our control!
Let’s talk about things that we can do. Generally, we are seen in a more positive light if we have a pleasant facial expression. Those of us whose resting facial expression looks bored or angry benefit from looking in a mirror and working to change to a more positive expression.
When I was in my 20s, I read an article about wrinkles. It said that we create wrinkles in our face by the expressions we display. One way to minimize wrinkles is to keep a neutral face with muscles relaxed as much as possible. Man, I took that suggestion to heart. I started keeping my face relaxed as much as possible.
Unfortunately, when my facial muscles are relaxed, I look a bit like a serial killer contemplating her next victim. I was editing Army regulations in Heidelberg at the time. My coworkers began asking me if I was okay. They’d say, “Are you angry about something?”
It took me longer than I want to admit to put two and two together. I started intentionally smiling before I looked up from my work when someone asked me a question. The difference in my coworkers’ reactions and treatment of me was remarkable.
However, assumptions about many aspects of a person’s appearance vary wildly. I demonstrate this point by asking participants in my workshop to share their assumptions based on the way I dress. For example, I don’t wear jewelry other than a watch. I ask them to create some hypotheses about why I don’t have on jewelry.
The guesses or assumptions vary wildly. They range from metal allergies to wanting to live simply to not wanting to be bothered by that morning decision. The guesses say more about the person than about me. Remember, we look at the world through our Frame of Reference. What we notice and how we judge what we see is unique to our values, priorities, experiences, and beliefs. We give answers that fit in with our own Frame of Reference.
I don’t wear nail polish, either, and no one ever guesses the real reason why. Why do you think I don’t wear nail polish? Come up with some reasons that make sense to you. The better you know me, the more accurate your answer might be. Got some hypotheses? Really pause and think about it!
The reason I don’t wear nail polish is that it is filled with toxic chemicals. Our bodies continually absorb and have to deal with a cocktail of toxins, and some of them are carcinogens. Are you appalled when you see children with nail polish on? I am! I put it in the category of smoking around children because it is harmful to their health.
Did you see that one coming? Unless you know me well or have been in one of my workshops, I’m guessing that you probably didn’t guess correctly. Through experience, I’ve learned that the nontoxic part of my Frame of Reference is not shared by many other people.
So, what are the takeaways here? First, we want to appear as we want to be perceived. If we want to be seen as a bit of a rule breaker, we can wear funkier-than-usual work attire. If we are ambitious, we can dress like our boss or our boss’s boss. If we want to be considered approachable, we can wear a friendly expression. If we want to be taken seriously at work, we can make sure that our clothes are wrinkle-free and in good condition.
We can take this suggestion one step further and say, “Dress as you want to be.” There is quite a bit of research that supports the fact that our clothes influence our own behavior, not just how people react to us. One study even showed that the cognitive ability of students improved when they wore more formal attire rather than “street clothes.”
I will make a small side note for women here. I just read a study that found that provocative dress results in women being seen as less intelligent and competent. When women wore conservative outfits, they were judged highly. However, unbutton one button on that same outfit or hike the skirt above the knee, and the women were seen as being dressed appropriately to be a receptionist, but not a leader.
Second, when judging others, it’s important to remember that our assumptions are based on our own Frame of Reference. It’s natural to pull on our past experiences, knowledge, and values when making a judgment about something. It’s vital that we remember that we are guessing.
It’s best to label our deductions as hypotheses – predictions that have yet to be proven or disproven. It keeps us from turning an assumption into a fact in our heads. Until we gather more information or ask the person, our assumptions are just something that we made up.
As leaders, one crucial question to ask is “Am I being perceived by others as I want to be seen?” Our clothes and facial expressions can help us be seen as and be the leaders that we want to be. Another important question is “What assumptions am I making based on my own experiences and beliefs?” Great leaders constantly challenge their own thinking.
For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.
Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.
If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.