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Innovation and perceptions of competence

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Innovation and perceptions of competence

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The standard thinking in commercial life, and indeed in any walk of life, is that image counts for a lot.  As such there is an awful lot of time, money and attention given to how we dress at work.  Not for nothing is the phrase dressing for success a part of the modern lexicon.  Except a new study suggests it might be hogwash, at least under certain conditions.

“We proposed that, under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial to someone than simply trying to fit in. In other words, when it looks deliberate, a person can appear to have a higher status and sense of competency,” write authors Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan (all Harvard University).

The results from five studies showed that people were attributing higher status and competence to those individuals who didn’t conform to expectations when placed in a formal setting.  For instance a professor with a beard and t-shirt was rated as more competent than a rival professor cleanly shaven in a suit.

“A key question for companies is to understand how consumers can demonstrate that they are intentionally not conforming through brands and products. In other words, ‘what makes nonconformity seem more intentional?’” the authors conclude.

Of course, non-conformity is not just something we can display through our clothes, but also through our thoughts and ideas.  For instance, I wrote last year about the importance of innovators being distinct from the ‘in crowd’ in a company.  This is crucial to the success of the innovation, because the in crowd will be heavily invested in the status quo.  They will want things to stay just as they are, because it’s that state that has given them their current status.  Breaking free from that will therefore people who are quite happy being outsiders.

Luckily, a Cornell study from a few years ago, suggests that for many innovators, being seen as an outsider is almost a source of validation.

“For people who already feel separate from the crowd, social rejection can be a form of validation,” says the study’s lead co-author Sharon Kim, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School

“Rejection,” she says, “confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.”

Interestingly however, whilst those from the Harvard study that kicked this post off were seen as more competent for their creative dress sense, when people were displaying their creativity via their ideas, Wharton research revealed they were regarded as having less leadership potential.

Maybe it’s time for us to start building organizational cultures that encourage innovative thoughts to be heralded rather than just those that cock their noses at the fashion norms expected of them.

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