Sneakers, Status & NonConformity

90_1396654483A friend of mine tells the story of his first Friday working for an insurance company – no one told him Fridays were “casual day.”  He showed up to work in a pressed shirt and bow tie, and was teased about it.

Every Friday for years since he has bucked the corporate culture and worn a bow tie. Interestingly, he also rapidly became one of the company’s top sellers.

What Does Your Attire Communicate?

In a new twist on “the clothes make the man,” recent research finds that under certain circumstances, people wearing unexpected attire are perceived as having higher status and greater competence.

“Our studies found that nonconformity leads to positive inferences of status and competence when it is associated with deliberateness and intentionality,” writes Bellezza, Gino and Keinan in “The Surprising Benefits of Nonconformity,” from the Spring 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.

While it was long thought expensive shoes and custom suits signaled power, competence and success, that idea has been turned on its head in the 21st century – at least by the elite.

One of the most visible examples is Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. Whether being interviewed by the media or meeting with Wall Street bankers, Zuckerberg shows up wearing jeans and a hoodie.

The point is not how formal or causal you dress – it’s how unconventional your  choice is perceived to be from the occasion or the norm.

While the most traditional-minded among us may chaff at Zuckerberg’s wardrobe choices, many are impressed by them – deducing that Zuckerberg has earned the right to wear whatever he pleases, and has the courage to do so.

“From a psychological standpoint, intentional deviance from a norm can project heightened status and competence by signaling that one has the autonomy to act according to one’s own inclinations,” write the study’s authors.

Should You Replace Your Suits with Hoodies?

Can I show up to teach at the university in yoga pants, flip-flops and my favorite concert t-shirt from my college days and impress others with that choice? Perhaps some students would applaud me; I suspect many of my fellow faculty would not. I might get away with it, however, if I have the highest teaching evaluation scores on campus and/or bring in millions in grant money with my research.

There is a cost/benefit analysis to be done when choosing to deliberately buck convention with your non-conformity.

Research reveals that onlookers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they think he or she is both aware of the accepted norm and able to conform to it, but deliberately decides not to.

When nonconforming behavior or attire appears to be prompted by lack of means, lack of better alternatives, or lack of awareness of the code, it does not lead to positive inferences from others. Think of my clueless friend on his first Friday at work.

To benefit from deviance from the norm, we should make sure that others perceive our nonconforming practices to be intentional choices. Think of my friend each Friday since.

Managing Impressions

“Conformity to rules and social norms in both professional and nonprofessional settings tends to generate social acceptance and avoids negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule and exclusion. Signaling through nonconformity comes at the cost of abandoning this comfort zone and the benefits of following the crowd.” write the researchers.

Nonetheless, it might work to your advantage to make a bold choice from time to time … especially if you are in the company of other non-conformists.

In an experiment, one of the authors taught a class to executives at Harvard Business School wearing nonconforming red Converse sneakers. Many of the executives deducted that the professor teaching the class was a well-published scholar, high ranking in her field. And the positive inference of competence and status was particularly strong for executives who themselves owned an unusual pair of shoes.

This experiment shows it can pay to know the tendency towards conformity or nonconformity of those you interact with – The Forte Institutue can help you discover this.

Clearly, nonconformity is seen in a positive light in certain scenarios. However, in other scenarios deviation from the norm can result in disapproval rather than increased status.

As you contemplate wing tips vs. sneakers, consider whom you are aiming to impress and whether you are confident enough to withstand any potential costs of nonconformity. As this research shows, if you go with the Converse, go boldly in them rather than treading lightly.


The Forté Institute’s Rachel Olsen is on faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Rachel is a communication specialist, and a trained and certified coach. Call at The Forté Institute at 910-452-5152.

Keys for Helpful Feedback

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Years ago – before the rise of webinars with comment boxes – I gave seminars via a conference call line. Eighty or so participants would call in, I would put everyone on mute, and then “present” for the next 30 minutes.

I’m an experienced speaker, and I had notes in front of me, but I would sweat my way through these calls, feeling exhausted afterward. It felt stressful and hard because I had no feedback – visual or verbal – from the group so I had no sense of how I was doing.

I could’ve adjusted or clarified, and improved on the fly if only I had some information to go on. Instead it was like speaking into a black hole.

Sometimes our jobs can feel that way if we aren’t getting feedback from our leaders, clients or co-workers.

Feedback is absolutely essential for improving performance, increasing accountability, establishing desired goals, recognizing strengths and achieving wanted results.

Here are three keys to the art of giving good feedback.

1) Positivity 

In addition to direction on what or how you’d like to see someone change or improve, also provide information on what they are doing well.

Aim to give them a “feedback sandwich” – a positive praise, followed by the points where they could improve and suggestions for improvement, followed at the end by another positive praise or your vote of confidence.

Positive feedback stimulates the reward center in the brain, leaving the person happy and open to taking new direction. Negative feedback, on the other hand, tends to trigger the threat response and defensiveness can set in.

You can be tough as a leader without being negative or mean. Stay positive.

2) Specificity

People generally operate best when given specific direction. Rather than saying, “I want you to be more talkative in meetings,” try, “You’re a careful thinker, which I apprecaite, so I’d like to hear at least one idea or opinion from you in each meeting.”

If you are too vague in your communication with others, it forces them to guess what you want. If they don’t know what they should do – or how you what it done – they may not ask for clarification for fear of looking ignorant or inattentive. Considering asking them if you have provided enough specific information about the goal, process, procedure, desired behavior or deadline at hand.

When giving feedback, give specific examples of when/how they have not met expectations, and offer what they can specifically do to improve. The need for specificity on feedback and direction is going to be especially high for systematic thinkers like conformists on the Forte scale. While non-conformists may not crave as much specificity on the how-to part, they too need clear information about what you want to see improved.

3) Immediacy 

The adult brain learns best when feedback is given at, or shortly after, the time of performance. If you wait weeks or months to tell someone their performance on something was average or sub-par, they likely won’t fully grasp the changes you’re wanting to see as they won’t adequately recall the details of their performance.

Immediate and frequent feedback provides more opportunities for adjustment, allowing employees to accelerate their growth on the performance learning curve. Immediate feedback allows adjustments “on the fly” before ineffective habits are created. When employees do not get feedback they will assume what they are doing is working, or at least is acceptable, and likely will continue the behavior.

Like positivity, immediacy in feedback also increases people’s motivation for improvement – particularly on tasks they will be repeating either soon or often.

Better Your Employees’ Performance by Bettering Your Feedback

According to Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner at the NeuroLeadership Summit in Boston, people who receive feedback only apply it about 30% of the time. So be prepared to address the issue again if progress is not made – but remain positive and specific and give feedback as immediately as possible.

Staying mindful of these three keys will increase the odds your feedback will lead to improved performance.

The Forté Institute’s Rachel Olsen is on faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Rachel is a communication specialist, and a trained and certified coach. Call at The Forté Institute at 910-452-5152.