Buttons and a Collar

Tags: career books

A younger developer complained about our project managers and business analysts. They never took his ideas seriously, but those same ideas were golden when spoken by respected team leader. To add a bit of insult, they usually talked to the team leader immediately after discounting his input.

He sat across the lunch table, clothed in a bacon themed t-shirt, flabbergasted by their mistrust of his judgment.

Have you considered wearing a shirt with buttons and a collar, leather shoes, and a matching belt?”

Three eyebrows raised, one each on him and our two comparably young lunch companions.

Like it or not, people judge each other based on looks, and if you dress like a college kid with virtually zero professional experience, that’s the way people are going to treat you. Two options spring to mind: change the way you look or thoroughly destroy their preconceived notions through stellar results. And not just good results, but consistent and stunningly fantastic results that can’t be attributed to luck. Please, perform at that level. But consider getting some khakis and oxford shirts, because they’ll start working their magic tomorrow while you build your stunningly fantastic track record over the coming weeks and months.”

Order the Dress Shirt

I then shared how tragically uncool I was while working my first internship. Baby-faced and a full 20 years younger than the average employee in our division, I knew my looks could easily work against me. I grew a collection of pleated khaki pants, dress shirts, and polos. It was a bit like my uniform from Bishop Miege High School, but I also wore a belt and leather shoes that didn’t come with a swoosh or reflective panels stitched in.

A case study examining the power of clothes appears in Robert Cialdini’s Influence: There’s a guy who violates the law by crosses the street against the traffic light. Half of the time in a freshly pressed suit, and half of the time in dirty cotton trousers and a faded t-shirt.

Like the children of Hamelin who crowded after the Pied Piper, three and a half times as many people swept into traffic behind the suited jaywalker.

Influence, Chapter 6, Robert Cialdini

We haven’t evolved beyond instinctive human nature. Much of our trust in looks is wrapped up with the tribe mentalities that kept us alive for thousands of years. You can read more about that in chapter 7 of Olivia Fox Carbane’s The Charisma Myth.

Note that clothing is a double edged sword in IT. Some programmers may refuse to acknowledge your skills if you’re dressed too nicely, but if you’re just upgrading to buttons and a collar you should be fairly safe.

What signals are your clothes sending?