As important as individualism and creativity can be to furthering your career, free spirits should rethink their more unconventional traits in the workplace. New research finds that certain physical attributes and behaviors can unconsciously turn off people who don’t know you well.
According to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marketing Education, we’re all driven to want to work with people we consider trustworthy. “Trustworthiness is so applicable to people in the workplace… [and] very influential in how people behave toward each other,” says Wayne Neu, associate professor and chair of the marketing department at California State University San Marcos.
Trustworthiness is important enough that when we’re placed in a situation where we don’t know our potential teammates or colleagues personally, we wind up using social cues as a kind of proxy, and that’s when people start getting judgy.
And everybody does it. Neu found that all of his subjects, who were told to pick members of a team they would have to work with, said they used social cues at least some of the time when deciding who to choose for their teams and who to avoid.
In experiments, Neu found that subjects judged their potential teammates’ character and values based on details as small and seemingly insignificant as their clothes, hair and makeup.
“It’s quite interesting that when attributes of hair deviate too far from a context-dependent social norm, [like if] it’s too long — for men — too messy, too different in style, it’s associated with possessing negative personality traits and being untrustworthy,” Neu says. Guys with long hair are perceived as slackers, and obviously dyed or messy hair also can trigger a perception that a person is unprofessional and uncooperative.
Both men and women think less of women who wear a lot of makeup, too. “I found make-up to be quite interesting,” Neu says. “A few men and women explained how wearing what they consider too much makeup initiates a sequence of negative beliefs about personality, values, and trustworthiness.” Basically, a woman wearing “too much” makeup is perceived as a flake who’s more concerned about her looks than her job.
On the other hand, smiling, making eye contact and carrying a day planner or laptop are all considered positive attributes.
Although every corporate culture is different, Neu says generally fitting in is a good rule of thumb. “In a given workplace setting, and in the absence of prior knowledge, if a person deviates too far from the norm… he or she is more likely to be mentally categorized by others as an untrustworthy type,” he says.
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