Is wearing a T-Shirt really no problem? – Part 5 of the blog series: Influencing self and others

Nowadays it does not matter what I wear. Correct? Yet anyone who has seen poor reporter Will Reeve in a nationwide zoom reportage without his pants, anyone who has seen his boss in a worn-out polo shirt, and anyone who has seen her employee in an old sweatshirt in front of the camera might be doubtful. At the same time, many companies are proud that they - in the spirit of diversity - allow nearly all types of clothing under the sun. And many leaders consciously want to cover up their status and be seen as approachable when they decide to leave the suit on the hanger.

The question for you: What do you think about T-shirts on the job?

What price do companies pay when Marc Zuckerberg goes about in a T-shirt, Dieter Zetsche in jeans and sneakers and the advisor of Boris, Dominic Cummings, even sports the sloppy look? Quite clearly: the price is high. Therefore, I say to you: Return to civilization. Finally dress like adults again!

Why should you do that?

Firstly, you are smarter in formal attire. Someone in a white lab coat is better at solving tasks than someone in a T-shirt.1 The human brain needs a frame to make an effort: The lab coat or the suit is such a frame.

Secondly, formal clothing allows you to think more abstractly, see the big picture and look beyond the moment.2 Formal clothing creates social distance and thus generates independence of thought.

Thirdly, you are perceived as more competent. Only this year, a study has again proven that you are perceived as more capable and knowledgeable when dressed formally than when dressed casually or even slovenly.3 And, another bonus, your customers are more willing to buy from you.4

Does this mean that you have to wear a three-piece suit with a tie or a costume with high heels every day? Of course not, because if it is important for your job to sometimes signal greater closeness or to be creative with other casually dressed people, then you should be able to do that too. However, informal does not have to mean the messy or slovenly look.

Clothing signals appreciation

There is yet another issue: Behind a slovenly look often lies a lack of appreciation for others and a mistaken understanding of roles. Just as I do not appreciate my listeners when I mumble, yawn, scratch myself or when I have simply not prepared myself, I also do not appreciate my fellow beings when I present myself in my baggy outfit. Cross your heart. Who do you prefer to look at? Angelina Jolie and Roger Moore or men in shorts and Birkenstocks, women in sack dresses and hoodie? Exactly. And more importantly, if someone in a sloppy look is sitting across from you, you have to make a big effort to open up to that person's character. And why should we present ourselves in such a way that the observer's brain first has to get over our outfit in order to see us as a competent employee or boss?

To put it plainly: I only appreciate you as a counterpart when I make it easy for you to see me in my professional role.

Wrong understanding of roles by wearing the wrong outfit
On top of all this comes a frequent misunderstanding of the roles we play. Sometimes search for authenticity results the fact that nobody is willing to pull themselves together for their current role. (To be honest, this is more of a German thing... but still you may see some of this even in your culture)  The attitude then is: if I have been made to swear in a traffic jam, I should be allowed to bark this out first thing at work; if my computer crashes, I don't want to have to say hello in the coffee kitchen; if the customer cancels, I should be allowed to be grumpy at a colleague’s leaving party.

No, and no again! We have ourselves chosen the role we play at work. Thus, we have to act in accordance with this role. That means avoiding everything that makes life more difficult for others. That also means that my sensitivities stay with me and only me! Therefore, whether you are a leader or an employee, the task is to be be completely in your role during working hours. This does not mean that you are not allowed to share something personal. But only if you do not fall out of your role.

What does this mean for your clothes? If blouse, then an ironed one, if suit, then please wear trousers even in an online meeting, and if it absolutely has to be a T-shirt, then at least with a jacket.

If you are looking for role models now, you should watch the films "Kingsmen" or "The Third Man", or read the books "Crazy Rich Asians" by Kewin Kwan and the autobiography by Diana Vreeland.

It will make you throw away all your ragged t-shirts voluntarily as well as give you an appreciation for the well dressed!

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1 Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918-925.
2 Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The cognitive consequences of formal clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6), 661-668.
3 Oh, D., Shafir, E., & Todorov, A. (2020). Economic status cues from clothes affect perceived competence from faces. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(3), 287-293.
4 Shao, C. Y., Baker, J. A., & Wagner, J. (2004). The effects of appropriateness of service contact personnel dress on customer expectations of service quality and purchase intention: The moderating influences of involvement and gender. Journal of Business Research, 57(10), 1164-1176.