Perception Management: A Social Psychology Experiment

Here’s a suggestion…in the next week, try a social psychology experiment at work.  On two days, simply walk through your company and count how many people spontaneously say “hi” as you pass in the hallway.  Then, for two days, wear a sport coat or tie and do the same thing.

Several years ago, as I was completing some of my doctoral coursework, I tried this experiment.  The results?  On days I wore a sport coat, nearly 80% of coworkers greeted me.  Alternatively, when I wore simply business casual (collared shirt & khakis), less than a quarter of my coworkers went out of their way to say “hi,” unless I initiated the exchange.

In fact, I repeated the experiment on casual days, wearing a blazer with jeans and then no blazer.  Same results….

Without passing judgment either way, this simply observational experiment demonstrated the possible difference in one’s perceived importance and how one dresses, I believe.  At that company, management typically dressed up, while the rank and file employees’ attire followed the company’s official business casual policy.  My conclusion was reinforced when I removed from consideration coworkers who already knew me.  The 80%-20% results were unchanged.

For many organizations, perception management is key.  Like it or not, it’s not always the actual results that are rewarded, but rather how well you “play the game,” and how well you navigate (or some might prefer, manipulate) the perceptions of others.  It’s a sad, but true reality in many companies.

Does this mean you simply bend to the norms, quietly relinquishing your individuality or any attempts to buck what may be an unhealthy or dysfunctional climate?  There’s no right answer.  But there are some key takeaways, regardless of what’s right for you.

1)   If you understand the importance of perceptions within your organization (particularly with regard to “importance” or “fitting in”), it is easier to rationally determine if it’s a good fit for you.  For some, it may be.  For others, it may not.  For years, I thrived within the ultimate conformist culture as a soldier and later a sailor in the U.S. military.

2)   If you decide it IS worthwhile to remain with that organization, knowing the value of particular perceptions may help you gain an edge over other employees.  If wearing a sport coat changes the way others view you and makes it more likely that you’ll climb the corporate ladder, that would be a pretty easy change to make, huh?

Regardless of which takeaway appeals most to you, try the experiment.  If nothing else, it’s may provide some interesting insights into your company culture.  Let me know what you conclude in your organization!

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