Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Change Your Clothes, Change Your Brain?

I just hate wearing "work savvy" clothes.  I mean I just hate it.  And every place has its own little rules, and every time you change employers it requires certain changes to your own little wardrobe. 
Years ago, I worked at a manufacturing company.  It was fantastic.  I wore jeans and t-shirts, or occasionally skirts and t-shirts.  I could wear tennis shoes and sandals and flip-flops to work if I wanted to.  It was bliss.
Then I moved to New York and worked at a snooty company.  Fortunately I was on the lower rungs of the company, so I didn't have to dress up a whole lot.  I could wear pants or skirts and tights.  I had to invest in a LOT of heels, but apart from that, it wasn't so bad.  And on top of it all, in summer, there were specific summer work attire rules.  They were kind of obnoxious (no tank tops--a rule which was flouted ALL the time--and no flip flops that made noise, which is a rule open to a lot of interpretation), but the great thing was that in the summer I didn't have to wear pantyhose, which, as I'm discovering, saves some serious dosh.
My new company is less snooty generally, but my division's boss is a former consultant, and he thinks (rightly) that our department has an image problem.  I won't go into the many, many ways that you address an IT division's image problem.  (Solving problems, maybe?  Or educating your business partners so that they understand the value of the services you provide?  Or setting realistic expectations, making realistic commitments, and then meeting the realistic commitments?  But I digress.)  We are, I am assured, doing many things to manage our image problem, and one of them is managing a huge enterprise deployment with what appears to be extraordinary skill, care, and attention, which is nice.  ("`Appears,' Katy?"  Well, yes, Imaginary Reader.  The deployment hasn't happened yet, and as a former user of the enterprise system we're rolling out, the proof is in the pudding.)
But one of the things we're doing is dressing sharp.  I won't go so far as to say it's the ultimate in style over substance, because I really do believe our division has substance to follow up the style.  The substance is oft-mismanaged and we are desperately overcommitted, but we're not the Paris Hilton of IT.  Still, when it comes to understanding our customers' priorities, I'd hazard a guess that making sure our belts match our shoes is pretty low compared to having a low-maintenance, reliable enterprise application.  I comply, to a certain extent.  I'm going through pantyhose like there's no tomorrow, which sucks--I feel like King Kong when I run a pair of pantyhose right out of the package, as I'm trying to put them on.  "Oopsie.  Hulk smash."  But I wear surf skirts to work a lot (they are made of wondrous fabric that is comfy and cool in summer and wrinkle-free right out of the dryer, and if people can tell that they could also be worn in the ocean, well, they haven't mentioned it to me).
I see the guy's point, in a way.  I used to watch a BBC show called "Faking It," where contestants would have 3 weeks to prepare to deceive a panel of experts into thinking that they were, say, a head chef, a dj, a television producer, a hairstylist, a dancer, whatever.  As I write it, it kind of sounds easy, but think about it.  They took a guy who knew how to make beans on toast and made him pass for a head chef at a snooty London restaurant in three weeks.  That's not exactly Frank Abagnale, but it's definitely in the same vein.  Anyway, the contestants that did the best were the ones who got made over--including wardrobe--for their new identity as early as possible.  Actors say the costume makes a big difference in their ability to portray a character.  So I guess the costuming decision has merit.
But the manufacturing company I worked for had an actual policy that someone's clothing, hair, footwear, and general image were not to be a part of how anyone assessed their performance.  As long as they weren't frankly offensive (wearing clothing that left uncomfortably little to the imagination, say) clothes were deemed officially irrelevant.  And I dug that big time.  I think it's possible for a corporate culture to change the way people think about things--like wasting people's time (rules about meetings starting on time and serving a definite purpose) or wasting money (saying "no" to the private jet for the CEO) or spending a lot of time on image rather than substance.  And I assure you, I'm not some starry-eyed ingenue.  I'm bitter about my work--bitter like coffee that's been sitting on the burner for a couple of days.  And I'm not unrealistic.  There will always be people who resent a rule like that and want everyone to look like they stepped out of whatever catalog is on their coffee table.  But I do think you can change most of your employees.  If you can't change their thoughts, you can certainly change their behavior. 
And, as disturbing as it is, I think you can change their thoughts as well, to a certain extent.  The manufacturing company also had a policy about safety.  If you walked down the stairs with an armful of stuff, someone would point out to you that it would be safer to use the elevator.  If you went to a conference room and plugged something in, stringing a cord from the outlet to the conference room table six inches off the ground, someone would suggest that you find a safer place to plug it in.  If you stuck your hand in the elevator doors to keep them from closing, someone would point out to you that there was a button which was almost as effective and much, much safer.  There were programs that encouraged everyone, even office workers, to get up and stretch twice a day to avoid manufacturing floor injuries, carpal tunnel, and other slumping/typing/staring-at-a-screen-all-day maladies.  It seemed ridiculous when I started, and some of it still seems silly.  But over time, I have to admit that thinking about safety became second nature to me--it's extremely noticeable as I work in different companies that have no vested interest in safety.
Companies don't hesitate to change our thinking for the worse--to encourage us to believe that a 70-hour work week is normal, for example, or to encourage us to defer repeatedly to a boss who's 25 minutes late to a meeting, or to encourage us to waste time at endless meetings with no clear purpose and where we have no clear role.  We accept this brainwashing without complaint, for the most part--at least, that's the norm judging from how people look at me when I suggest that it's obscene to put up with these things.  So since we're trusting our employers to tinker with our innermost thoughts anyway, we should at least encourage them to tinker in good ways rather than bad.

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