Workplace Doctor: Find your own style, not office fashions

Everyone in my office is extremely attractive. The women have sleek hairdos, perfect make-up and only wear the latest fashions and the men are all well-groomed and wear sharp suits. I sometimes wonder how I got through the door but I suspect it is because I am in IT, and I am not in a client-facing role. However, I find all this perfection intimidating. Should I scrub up or learn to chill out? NB, Dubai

Appearances can be deceiving, but in many organisations they certainly count. Well-groomed staff certainly make a strong first impression, both in the eyes of clients and within the office walls. Fashionable and sophisticated attire conveys confidence and those who heavily invest in their appearance will argue that if you look good you feel good and this influences performance. There is research that says workers who work out and women who wear make-up often get paid more than those who do not – and that handsome people are rewarded more handsomely. Preconceived notions and stereotypes are naturally built into our own assumptions about other people and we may unconsciously (often mistakenly) associate attractive appearances with success. Many of us will quite rightly disagree with these findings and argue that in these cases employers are prioritising style over substance and they should pay more attention to work ethic than work attire. In my view, it is a fine line – looking good can boost self-esteem and convey professionalism, yet to truly be effective; underneath the designer suit there needs to be a talented employee. Appearances need to be authentic because as responsibility increases those without the right skills will be found out.

In your case, as you are working in an internal IT role you may feel it is justified not to pay as much attention to your dress code as those in client- facing roles. You “got through the door” based on merit, and who wants to root around under a desk for missing cables in their best suit? There is no need to find those around you intimidating, in fact quite the opposite. You have the freedom to choose your work attire, while they may feel that some of their success is dependent on keeping up appearances.

But the fact that this issue is “top of mind” for you suggests that it is one you think about regularly, and that it might be chipping away at your confidence. While you may not find yourself judged for dressing casually, questioning your own adequacy will have an effect on your presence at work. Consider if by smartening up, even very slightly, you would feel like a better version of yourself, and achieve more than you currently do, building some important new relationships. While you don’t have to make big changes, graduating from a T-shirt to a shirt and tie may help you feel confident in a competitive atmosphere. There is no need to try to fit in with others, but a few small things could allow you to walk taller.

If you do feel that some small changes may help you, then you must make sure that you are not trading on your appearance to conform. Build your career around being valued for the quality of your work, rather than how you look, and you will ensure the longevity of your working life. Those judged on looks are being rated on something far removed from the work itself and, as we all know, looks will not last forever. Hard work, commitment, and a positive attitude are timeless.

So what I am saying is that, although appearances do matter, the quality of your work rather than the quality of your wardrobe should carry you through. It might be your self-confidence rather than your clothing that needs a makeover, but don’t let yourself get distracted. Making a few external changes could be useful in the short term, but remaining consistent in your hard work will get you further.

Doctor’s Prescription

There is no need to be intimidated by perfection: it does not exist, and your co-workers will have their own insecurities despite their polished exteriors. Dressing well can create presence, brand and personal effect, but it needs to be fuelled by talent. Those with nothing beyond an attractive smile will soon find themselves sidelined. Don’t mistake a stylish exterior for the real thing, when the professional edge really lies in intellect, drive and commitment.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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