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It pays to be deliberate.
That’s one of the takeaways of new research from Harvard Business School about how personal style and nonconformity in appearance can affect perceptions. Confidence, it turns out, is often the primary signal people send out when they choose to dress differently or even a bit outrageously.
“Our studies found that nonconformity leads to positive inferences of status and competence when it is associated with deliberateness and intentionality,” write Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino and Anat Keinan, in “The Surprising Benefits of Nonconformity,” in the Spring 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review .
“Observers attribute heightened status and competence to a nonconforming individual when they believe he or she is aware of an accepted, established norm and is able to conform to it, but instead deliberately decides not to,” they continue.
One of the most visible examples is Mark Zuckerberg, the 30-year-old CEO of Facebook. As often as not, he has appeared in public (and met with Wall Street bankers) wearing his trademark hooded sweatshirt.
“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 authors.
(One of the article’s authors taught a class to business executives wearing red Converse sneakers. The effect was positive: executives thought the professor was a well-published scholar and high up in the hierarchy of her department. “The positive status and competence inferences were particularly strong for executives who themselves owned an unusual pair of shoes,” write the authors.)
All this contrasts with how people perceive those who dress differently either because they can’t afford nicer clothes or because they don’t understand the norms. “When a nonconforming behavior appears to be dictated by lack of means, lack of better alternatives or lack of awareness of the dress code, it will not lead to positive inferences from others,” the authors write.
Still, the authors caution against just foregoing suits and ties for hoodies and red sneakers at the office, and to keep in mind that stepping away from the norm takes you out of a certain comfort zone.
“A wiser path is to try to strike a balance between the benefits of adhering to social norms and the potential, though more risky, upsides of nonconforming practices,” they write. “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.”
There are three kinds of deviation from the norm that the authors have identified through their research as most likely to elicit positive perceptions:
1. Deviate “by being creative and seeking social distinction through original, novel or unique products.” The authors give the examples of selecting a nonconforming PowerPoint presentation style — one that’s different, say, from the official template at a business plan competition — or of wearing an unusual tie to a formal event.
2. Establish differentness “by disregarding a norm entirely.” Example: not wearing any tie to a formal event.
3. Engage in behaviors “that strongly violate and disrupt existing norms of proper conduct.” For example, “wearing a tie around one’s head at a formal event.” Not surprisingly, this choice is riskiest. “There is no need to be excessive,” the authors note.
For more examples from the author’s research, take a read through the full article. The authors are all affiliated with Harvard Business School: Silvia Bellezza is a doctoral candidate in marketing at HBS, Francesca Gino is a professor of business administration at HBS and Anat Keinan is an associate professor of marketing at HBS.