Why Do Looks Matter?

My son is happy working as a printer, running a fairly complex machine. He has a good work ethic and is loyal to his family and friends. I like him. He’s a good kid. Yet he and I have an ongoing  argument. It’s been going on for years. I can see his point of view because when I was a kid I felt the same way. It kind of goes like this:

It shouldn’t matter what somebody looks like. It’s what’s on the inside that counts

People Trust What They See, Not What They Hear

On some level it really shouldn’t matter what somebody looks like. Sometimes a person’s qualities and contributions are overlooked or missed because we’re caught up in making judgements about their credibility based on appearances. The obvious examples are skin colour or gender. How somebody speaks, how they’re dressed, what school they went to also might have an impact on our impression of them. More subtly and more powerfully, how they stand, personal grooming, smiling also have an effect. Is this always right? Probably not.

So my son is right, but he’s also wrong at the same time. When we’re trying to be effective in an organization full of people, when we’re trying influence other people, what we think doesn’t matter. It’s what they think matters. The alternative is to give the world a great big middle finger and walk away from society. Which is a choice some people have taken.

Most of us make instantaneous, unconscious value judgements based on peoples appearance. Even when we try not to. We’re visual creatures. Our eyes over over-ride ears most times, and it happens faster than a Maserati can make it to MPH. About 4 seconds. After that “cognitive bias” (also known as “people enjoy being right”) sets in, and we begin to disregard everything that doesn’t fit. We only remember the behaviours that fit our first impression.

Always On

This means we leaders, managers, and influencers need to be on our game all the time. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is an old saying because there’s some element of truth to it. Even when we’re not at work, people are watching us. I remember getting a little silly at a bar in my early days as a young officer. For me that means I spent some time on the dance-floor in front of the band doing my best impression of what I think of as dancing.

I heard all about it from my sergeant the next day, because I had been seen. A couple of my privates that happened to be at the same bar. They had duly gossiped, uh, reported  it to the rest of the squadron. It was a quick and easy lesson in how leaders are always leaders.  I had another reminder of this the other day, when I had an e-mail come through my blog, asking me to do a favour. My anonymous peer asked me to remind managers of some basics. There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just quote:

Love your articles, but there are aspects of leadership you haven’t mentioned and to be honest I didn’t think of them either until I had lunch yesterday with an old friend from the [multi-national name deleted] days. Anyway this person was totally grossed out when his manager, who also dresses shabbily, started to scratch his balls during a meeting. Don’t know how you would write an article about that, other than to suggest that managers should strive to maintain a dignified demeanour at all times.

How much credibility and influence do you think this manager has in his organization? No matter how technically savvy he is, probably not a lot.

Your actions:

  • Brush your teeth and shower regularly
  • Dress appropriately
  • Smile
  • Speak clearly
  • Sit or stand up straight
  • Don’t scratch your privates or pick your nose where others can see you

Do these things for a week if you don’t already, and notice what changes happen in your interactions with other people.

Other Reading:

Fashion tips for grown-up men
On matching shoes and socks
How to dress to impress – professional grooming tips for business women
First impressions and giving employee feedback

2 thoughts on “Why Do Looks Matter?

  1. What? No comments that we shouldn’t be so judgemental? This is a tricky topic that you have handled well. We teach our children that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and yet the scientific evidence tells us that we all do it. Frankly, I don’t think it’s merely in face to face meetings. We quite often “meet” people online or by email these days and judgements are made there as well. I’m sure everyone has received an email filled with spelling and grammar errors, no punctuation or all caps. I tend to make a judgement that either the person isn’t that bright, or that they don’t think I’m important enough to warrant punctuation.

    Another great post Bernie – thanks!



    1. Thanks Natalie.

      Not being judgemental is a good thing of course. I like to think of it as being more effective – not being sucked in by our first impressions and getting to the truth. Being aware of when we’re doing it is the first step in controlling it. Very easy to say, not so easy to do.

      What do you think?


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