For decades, I've observed that in some parts of the business world, intelligence tends to be inversely proportional to formality of dress.

In high tech, for example, everyone (including post-Boomer CEOs) tends to dress casually, just like the engineers who design and build the products. In those workplaces, everyone looks down at the "suits" who must dress up to feel important.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that everyone who wears a suit is ineffective or shallow. In many industries and situations, suits are like a sports uniform. If you're not "suited up," you don't get to play.

However, in environments where suits are optional, it's always seemed to me that the people who wore them did so because they were clueless. It turns out I had it exactly backwards.

According to a recent study at California State University, Northridge, and reported in The Atlantic, dress formally changes the way people think. When formally dressed, most individuals:

  1. Feel more powerful but less connected.
  2. Think holistically rather than being detail-oriented.
  3. Favor abstract reasoning over concrete facts.

The researchers (who, after all, are academics) present these characteristics as if they were good and useful in business situations. I beg to differ. Those characteristics describe a person who is:

  1. Pompously aware of his or her importance.
  2. Uses vague, fuzzy buzzwords (like holistic).
  3. Has a "50,000-foot view" that's oblivious to facts on the ground.

Your average corporate bureaucrat, in fact.

As I interpret the study, the typical person who "dresses for success" (in the traditional sense) becomes less self-aware, less intelligent, and less perceptive than if he or she dressed more casually. Which is exactly what I've observed in real life.

So now you know why the business world is increasingly dominated by people like Mark Zuckerberg, who wears hoodies to investor meetings. Why would he don a costume that makes him less effective?

Published on: May 4, 2015