27 May 2021 19:50 IST

Why one’s appearance matters in work and life

Attire plays a crucial role in the way one is perceived and one’s eventual success

Michael Burry, a doctor by education, took the plunge into a full-time career in the financial sector when he launched a hedge fund — Scion Capital, in 2000. With his fund constantly beating the average market returns to earn outstanding profits for its investors, Burry soon built the reputation of one of the most perspicacious hedge fund managers on Wall Street. Burry also had the distinction of being one of the first to recognise the fault lines that lay beneath the sub-prime housing market, and predict the impending financial disaster which played out in 2008. He made some clever market calls that saw his fund rocketing almost 500 per cent when the rest of world reeled under the bloodbath that ensued the crash.

Curiously, despite his evident success and financial acumen, he was unable to show the wisdom of his market strategy and convince people to remain invested in his fund, and strangely enough, he was not invited to any of the high profile discussions that did the rounds in the aftermath of the crisis.

Why was Burry ignored? What was the reason for his lack of influence and impact despite his very visible success?

 

 

Michael Burry was unable to sync his eyes when interacting with people, since one of his eyes had been replaced with a glass eye as a child. He also suffered from a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, a neuro developmental disorder, which made non-verbal communication difficult. An awkward communicator, he was inept at socialising, with the result he had few friends in school, college and even at Wall Street. He was idiosyncratic in other ways too. He was known to dress in shorts and t-shirt, often wearing the same clothes for days, walking around shoeless and sleeping off at odd hours in office. This was starkly incongruous with his peers on Wall Street who epitomised professionalism in their dark, designer suits and starched white shirts. Burry’s overall wrapping was off-putting. (Story from Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine)

Clearly, packaging matters!

How inviting is your packaging? Does it encourage people to come forward and explore the substance that resides within you, or distract them away from it? The value of wrapping is often underestimated because it does not seem to be at the core of your deliverables or goals, but it makes a huge difference to the way you are perceived, and whether you land that promotion or career-enhancing assignment that you so deserve.

Making your packaging work

Studies show that people size you within seconds based on your communication style, non-verbal cues and attire, taking away impressions about your trustworthiness, confidence and friendliness, and using these filters for engaging with you subsequently. These impressions are notoriously sticky.

Communicate effectively

In the 2016, romantic comedy film, Ki and Ka, Kiya, the protagonist of the film, is shown locking horns with her team at a sales and marketing brainstorming meeting. While sales recommends higher discounts for their product — cooking oil, marketing turns it down, vociferously stating that prolonged discounts would undermine the brand. At this juncture, Kiya tables a bizarre idea, recommending a 50 per cent discount — but only for men. She defends her idea saying that women will welcome the opportunity to delegate a domestic responsibility to men, and will force them to go and buy oil. The idea was given a shot, and the campaign turned out a roaring success, catapulting Kiya to stardom.

Clearly, it is not enough to have a great idea. You need to be able to get it across in a way that people listen. This calls for strong communication skills. Indira Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsico, had famously said, “If you want to be a leader, and you can't communicate effectively, forget it. You've got to be able to stand in front of employees and get them to go places they never thought they needed to get to.”

Be mindful of your non-verbal cues

Body language works in tandem with words to convey a more nuanced message, impacting your overall presentation and the impression that you make.

Leaning forward, making eye contact and nodding occasionally show that you are listening intently and are interested in the conversation. Donning a smile exudes warmth, breaks the ice and helps strike an instant rapport. Hand gestures while speaking point to enthusiasm and involvement, but a discrepancy between the two can cast a shadow on one’s credibility. The way you sit, stand, walk or shake hands speaks volumes about your confidence and approachability. Since non-verbal messaging is often inadvertent, it may be worthwhile inviting feedback to gain consciousness around it to ensure that your words and mannerisms work in sync to portray you as confident, empathetic and authentic. 

Dress with care

Still from the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

 

The crucial role of your attire in the way you are perceived and your eventual success is effectively demonstrated in the blockbuster film The Devil Wears Prada. Andrea Sachs lands a job at Runway, a high-end fashion magazine, and is tasked with assisting the high priestess of fashion and the editor of the magazine, the tough and demanding, Miranda Priestly.

Sachs walks in mocking at the superficiality of the fashion industry, and this mindset is reflected in her attire — prim, plain and devoid of style. Understandably, things don’t go well for her as she is constantly bullied by Priestly. Subsequently, on her mentor’s advice, she takes the first step towards embracing fashion by changing her wardrobe. She sets eyes rolling with a complete image makeover, which does not go unnoticed by Priestly, who starts taking her more seriously and entrusting her with more responsibility.

Studies show that your attire not only influences the way people perceive you, it also impacts your own thought process and confidence which manifests in your performance. So, reinforce your packaging by dressing to the occasion and following the norms of your industry. A case in point is Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who drops his customary jeans and hoodies in favour of dark, formal suits when meeting heads of states.

 

 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at Facebook headquarters in California

 

 

 

“Appearance is an extraordinarily powerful first filtering. It can get you knocked off the list in a second. It is a crucial face of executive presence,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy.