Studies show that people create their opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Whether you are meeting a new co-worker, employee or boss, you should keep in mind that the instant you meet, their brain begins to form assumptions, solely based on your appearance. It may seem unfair, but they will be silently assessing who you are based on your presentation, and what they decide in those moments will be hard to undo. Now, I know that we are all more than our appearances. And I by no means want to put anyone down because they don’t look or dress a certain way. But the harsh reality is, that we communicate with our appearance and the way we present ourselves. So what are you communicating?
I’m not talking about whether or not you are attractive, because this is of little significance in leadership. But ask yourself if the person in the mirror looks capable, smart, and confident or sloppy and disorganized. Your physical presentation can work in your favor or work against you. This is especially important for those of us in our 20’s and early 30’s trying to “lead up,” that is, leading older, more mature team members. I often hear young leaders complain that the older members in an organization do not take them seriously, but when I see how they present themselves, I have an idea why. People assume that you will lead them in the same way you lead yourself, and your appearance is an indicator of your discipline and attention to detail. If you seem sloppy, lazy or unprepared, you may be communicating to others that you will be careless with their time, disorganized in your planning, and forgetful with your promises. However, if even at a young age you can show your team that you are confident, well-dressed, and put-together they will assume you can get the job done.
Why is this so important? If people are getting the wrong impression of you, you may have to invest valuable time to change that image and regain their respect. It is so much more efficient to have good presentation and give a good impression from the beginning. As a manager, I often have to interview young people for employment opportunities. While I do not consider myself old-fashioned or very conservative, I look at their appearance and body language as an indicator of how they will work. If you find yourself needing a little help in this area, here are some things your appearance may be saying about you.
Showing too much skin
What it says about you: Showing too much skin can mistakenly communicate a lack of decorum. You may appear to be attention- seeking and superficial, wanting people to focus on your “sexiness” rather than on your skills and mental capabilities. This will cause people to question your competency. It may also cause male co-workers to treat you as an object and not respect you for the intelligent person you are.
Alternative: Cover up! Regardless of the weather, it is never appropriate to wear shorts, show cleavage, or too much leg in the office. You want the focus to be on your whole person, your personality and intelligence, not on your body. The rule of thumb for a “business causal” skirt or dress is to be no more than two inches above the knee. Tops should avoid showing any kind of cleavage or midriff.
Being overly trendy
What it says about you: It says to older team members that you may still have a lot of growing up to do and that you might not have developed the maturity to put together an appropriate wardrobe. This can make you seem frivolous and silly, especially if you are a young leader. They may think you’re cute, but not take you seriously.
Alternative: I support wearing what is in style, and am not going to suggest twenty-five-year-olds start dressing like they just hopped off the Mayflower! But I would recommend toning down youthful pieces by mixing them in with more classic ones, and saving really trendy styles for after work. The office for example, is not the best place for those awesome combat boots, or blue glitter eye shadow. You want to communicate that you are mature enough not to be shouting for attention with your wardrobe.
The “I woke up like this”
What it says about you: When you wear overly causal clothes or rock the “I just rolled out of bed” look, it can say to others that you are careless, lackadaisical and probably woke up late. It may seem as though you lack purpose, vision, and basic time-management skills. People will think, “this person probably let’s things fall through the cracks”.
Alternative: Always aim to look polished and well-groomed. The bohemian look is good for the weekend; it may be fit for relaxing but not always for leading. Keep your hair groomed and your fingernails polished and neat. If you can, throw on some makeup simply because it shows you did a little extra to look good. These things communicate excellence, and attention to detail.
Ill-fitting or wrinkled clothes
What it says about you: Clothes that don’t fit properly or are wrinkled communicate a lack of self-awareness. If clothing is too tight, it doesn’t look sexy. On the contrary, it tells others that you aren’t aware of how things fit you, or that you may have gained some weight and didn’t notice. In the same way, overly loose clothing can look sloppy.
Alternative: Pay attention to the fit of your clothes. This may require that you have to periodically replace them. Clothes that fit well will not only communicate professionalism, but will make you feel more confident.
Of course, every setting will have different standards of what is acceptable and what is not. For example, many start-ups or small companies tend to have more casual atmospheres. While these comments and suggestions are geared towards a typical office or workplace, I hope you consider applying this lesson wherever you have a leadership role or aim to influence others. Looking clean, well-groomed and appropriately dressed will help you put your best foot forward!
Vanessa Gracia Cruz is a wife, speaker, author and youth pastor/executive pastor of outreach and leadership development at Segadores De Vida. She just released her first book “Lead: Essential lessons for young leaders” Vanessa is also in charge of the women’s ministry at her church and organizer of Redoma,