The red sneaker effect

November 25, 2013

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wore his trademark hoodie to meetings with investors just before his company went public last year, some on Wall Street scoffed.

One analyst said Zuckerberg’s decision “is actually showing investors he doesn't care that much.” Others said that wearing his signature sweatshirt and jeans was "a mark of immaturity." But that’s not the response most people have when they see someone wear unorthodox clothes or engage in “nonconforming” behavior, according to new research from Harvard Business School.

In a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, HBS associate professor Francesca Gino finds that people who stand out from the crowd are actually seen as having higher “status” than others. Her experiments looked at everything from how executives responded to business school instructors who wore red sneakers to what luxury clothing boutique clerks thought of shoppers who came into their stores wearing gym clothes. And the study found repeatedly that such atypical clothing or behavior actually made others think more of the person, not less.

Typically, Gino says, we think of dressing differently or not following established norms as having what researchers call “a social cost”--that is, we think they carry a negative rather than positive effect. But in experiment after experiment, Gino’s research found something different. Take the example of two shoppers visiting high-end stores, one in gym clothes and the other in a dress and fur. When Gino and her colleagues asked a group of Milan shop clerks who worked at boutiques such as Armani, Christian Dior and Burberry as well as a sample of Milan residents to read scenarios about the two shoppers, retail employees were far more likely than everyone else to think the gym-wearing shoppers would spend more and be in a position to buy the most expensive items in the boutique.

Similarly, college students were more likely to think a professor at a top-tier university described as wearing a T-shirt and sporting a beard was better respected by his students than a clean-shaven professor wearing a tie. People see such individuals, Gino says, as "having the guts to do what they're doing. They have points to spare. They're such a high-status person that they don’t need to conform to the rules."

Of course, casual dress only translated into greater respect when the university where the professor worked was described in the experiment as being prestigious. When it was not, the inverse was true: The more formally dressed professors were seen as having marginally more status. In other words, it's only when a more formal code of conduct is expected that violating it is seen as an act of autonomy.

To try out her idea in a real-world setting, Gino stepped into a different pair of shoes--literally. Executives attending a seminar she taught were asked questions about the consulting work she did. They were more likely to think she charged higher fees and had a bigger client roster when she was wearing red sneakers with a business suit than when she was wearing more traditional shoes. In a prestigious environment like Harvard Business School, "executives have certain expectations about how the [instructor] will be dressed," she says. "For a second I think they were thinking I forgot to change my shoes."

So what does all this mean for leaders? Should you dress down when meeting new employees to give yourself a boost in their eyes? Will wearing red sneakers in a buttoned-up workplace give you more clout? Maybe, but it probably depends on the prominence of the place you're employed and whether your colleagues already know you well.

While Gino found that nonconformists tend to be seen as more competent in many, if not most, situations where they break the established norms, it doesn't work as well if there's a high level of familiarity, she says. "There needs to be some uncertainty about the real, objective status of that person" in order for the red sneaker effect, as she calls it, to work.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The brains behind the viral Goldieblox video

For whom the bell curve tolls

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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