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.