Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Clothes make the leader! How leaders can use attire to impact followers’ perceptions of charisma and approval”, by Maran, T.; Liegl, S.; Moder, S.; Kraus, S. and Furtnet, M. (2021), in which authors investigate how attire impacts in the perception that people have of their leaders.
Numerous examples of leaders that, on purpose, chose their attire to modify how they are perceived by others exist.
For instance, former US president George W. Bush often appeared in a cowboy hat. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, appeared in public, most of the times, wearing sneakers, sweater and simple trousers. That is to say, they managed to disrupt our expectations. In a way, they manipulated the spectator’s perception.
And we see this not only in presidents or important leaders of millionaire companies, but also in simple and daily life. For example, individuals willingly pay a higher price for luxury clothing and brands to signal their wealth and their social status. Namely, we would use these elements to stand out.
Then, if we give importance to clothing as a manipulative tool for our public image, how would this affect in work environment?
More precisely, what makes a person to be perceived as a charismatic and approved leader?
Research suggests, till now, that individuals who desire to be perceived as prototypical leaders and to earn attributions of trustworthiness, intelligence and competence, would be well-advised to dress formally, for instance, in a suit.
Here appears the first question authors make: does dressing formally make a person to be perceived as a prototypical leader?
Other questions arise. For example, authors argue that a leader dressing in a manner unconventional to a certain organizational culture, creates a contrast in the eyes of employees, resulting in greater attention being given to the leader. This means he/she will stand out.
This will make the leader to be perceived as more charismatic, and we already know that charisma is an important virtue in life in general, and business in particular.
That is why authors ask: if a leader chooses a clothing style that deviates from the organization’s cultural norms, will be perceived as more charismatic? And will he/she receive more approval?
Authors carried out some studies in order to obtain answers to these questions. The ones that we will be talking about will be just the first two experiments, because they are focused on the questions we’re interested in.
In them, individuals were presented with pictures of a designated leader from the Fortune 100 list. Then, their clothing style was systematically manipulated, and participants answered questions about the personality traits they perceived of these leaders.
Mainly, evidence in support of the idea that a leader’s clothing influences the way they are perceived by employees was found.
The first question authors asked themselves was answered. Employees perceive their leader as a prototypical leader when he/she uses formal clothing, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are perceived as more charismatic or more approved.
Moreover, it seems a leader should appear more charismatic to their employees and gain a higher approval rate when clothed less formally in a control-oriented culture, and more formally in a flexibility-oriented culture.
That is to say, in a control-oriented organization with formal dress code, dressing informally could be seen as being ignorant; in a flexible-oriented one, dressing formally could be interpreted as being narrow-minded.
Despite these prejudices, these people would communicate that they do not fear losing their position in the organization; they would say to us, with their deviate attires, that they can afford the social costs of not following the norm, like individuals purchasing luxury items to display their wealth to others. In that way, we stand out from others, we would do something others don’t dare to do.
This would work as a charismatic signal, because it would indicate the presence of ability outstanding enough to permit the wearer to deviate from the dress code.
There are some limitations in this study. For instance, authors point out the need of exploring other nonverbal areas, such as vocal projection or facial expressions, in the organizational leadership context. Another limitation would be the lack of leader women in the Fortune 100 list, used for the experiments.
Authors mention the utility of these studies to improve the leadership ability of people that are the head of an organization, and the way they are perceived by their employees.