Nailing an interview, job or entire career means looking professional, right? Traditionally, that translates to a suit and tie for men and a blouse and skirt/slacks for ladies. But new research throws a monkey wrench into it all, suggesting that what leaders look like or should wear isn't as cut and dry as we've all been taught.

Psychological projection, meet business fashion

In a simple experiment, researchers from the University of Exeter Business School and Bradford University School of Management showed people pictures of models. They then asked participants to decide which models looked like mediocre, average or excellent leaders.

And guess what.

Suits, ties, blouses and slacks weren't clear winners.

In fact, results were all over the map.

Digging deeper, the researchers compared how the participants described themselves to the models they described as leaders. They basically found that people project their self-image, identifying leaders as the people who look like they do. So if you're a fan of hoodies and jeans, for example, Mark Zuckerberg or Sheldon Yellen might be your dream boss. If you're all about the bling, though, Tory Burch or Stephan Winklemann might set the tone for your closet.

The results aren't limited just to clothes, either. They also extend to general demeanor. For example, if you're authoritative, you might say someone who looks commanding is a great leader. Similarly, if you value honesty, you might say an individual who looks trustworthy should be at the top.

Your best accessory likely is authenticity

As radio hosts Rico Gagliano, Brendan Francis Newnam and Tobin Low point out in a discussion of the study on The Dinner Party Download, the research suggests that authenticity might be more important in leadership than what you choose to put on or look like. If you're more comfortable and can finish tasks or connect with others better in a hoodie, you maybe shouldn't spend your paychecks on a bunch of designer pieces. But if designer pieces help you feel free and be your best self, it might be worth having them on your hangers. The hosts also note that, because of the mirroring people are doing, there might be merit to the idea of dressing like your boss if you want to advance. Doing so might help your boss see you as having more leadership capability. The same concept could apply to job interviews. If you study what the boss favors in their clothes, you could mimic their style to make a better first impression.

But what about the research proving that the clothes you slip into can change how you feel and behave for the better? Can't clothes help you adapt and build a different authentic self? Possibly. But it might be that changing your outfit is more of a temporary fix you can adjust based on your situation. For example, if you're attending a conference where you know other attendees are ridiculously smart and independent, wearing gear you associate with intelligence and free-thinking, such as black clothes or crazy socks, might calm your jitters. In theory, that kind of conditioning could help you accept that you really are smart and independent, too. But if you have trouble latching on to the persona or traits you think the dress conveys, adopting "costumes" for the long haul might do little more than make you feel like a fraud.

With this new research in mind, modern businesses are more varied in terms of fashion than they've ever been, particularly given that millennial-driven workforces demand comfort and flexibility. That, combined with the lack of agreement on what leaders look like, thus actually can be taken as heartening. You can take the helm and stay true to who you are, whatever that happens to be. The only question is whether you're willing to do so.

Published on: Aug 25, 2017
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