Does what you wear affect how well you work? (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Quite possibly. We’ve all had the experience of feeling more motivated and focused when we’re dressed up for work—whether that means donning a suit when our usual office dress is khakis and a golf shirt or, for those who work from home, simply getting out of pajamas. But new research shows that wearing certain items of clothing identified with certain qualities could help improve performance, too.

A recently published study from professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a test known as the “Stroop test,” which asks participants to say the color of a word being shown on a flash card, rather than the word itself. The group who donned white jackets identified as lab coats performed better on conflicting flash cards, such as when the word “blue” is spelled in red letters. Those wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made about half as many errors as their peers.

The researchers, Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, call their paper “Enclothed cognition,” a play on the term “embodied cognition,” the idea that bodily sensations can affect how we think and how we feel. For example, the folks over at Miller-McCune point to a 2010 study that found that body positions we think of as powerful (such as standing and leaning over a table or pumping out your chest) makes people act more confident and even raises testosterone levels in the body.

Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. As a result, Galinsky says their findings show that it’s not just the experience of wearing the clothes, but the symbolic meaning they hold for people. “It’s the simultaneous combination of the posture or the clothes and the symbolic meaning of them that matters,” he says.

Other than artists’ coats, Adam’s and Galinsky’s paper does not study the affect of clothes associated with other professions. But the findings do lead to questions, the authors write, about whether wearing the robes of a priest or a judge could prompt people to act more ethically, or whether putting on a firefighter’s coat could invoke courage. And what about suits and ties? “If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact,” he says. “But for some people, wearing suits makes them feel like a phony, as Holden Caulfield would say. So it’s really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.”

What does this mean for leaders? I’d guess it should prompt more thinking about workplace dress codes and fashion norms. Such policies are often instated to make sure people look a certain way to outsiders (think bank tellers who wear suits) or they become common practice in order to fashion a certain workplace culture (“we wear khakis, so this is an informal, fun place to work”). Much of the research on clothing has been focused on how we’re perceived, rather than how it affects our own behavior; just as most dress codes and workplace dress norms are established in order to set up a certain perception of the people who work there, rather than to actually make those people feel, think or perform better.

But before you rush out and tell your employees to wear suits every day for work so they’ll feel more powerful and confident, keep a few things in mind. Again, some people may not associate the clothes with those emotions. Additionally, as Galinsky asks in the paper, “do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time, as people become habituated to it?” The focused power that comes from donning a suit (for some people, at least) could get old when it becomes the standard dress code. And finally, are the qualities many people associate with a suit—power, confidence, being a professional representative for a client—what you always want people to be feeling at work?

Like all such studies, it’s hard to know how this research translates to the actual workplace. But it’s a good reminder that leaders should think through dress codes or workplace fashion norms not just in terms of how employees’ attire is perceived by others, but how it makes the employees themselves feel, too. “It reminds people that clothes aren’t just a device of perception, but a tool that can really affect how you perceive yourself,” Galinsky says. Clothes may not make the man, the saying goes. But as the authors write, “they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”

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