In the New York Times best seller The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Maxwell King discusses one of the most recognizable articles of clothing in American pop culture—the red knit cardigan that Fred Rogers would change into at the start of each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers’s show ran on PBS for more than 30 years, with the theme centered on promoting children’s emotional and moral well-being. The director of Early Childhood Initiative at the Fred Rogers Company, Hedda Sharapan, remarked that the show was “a world built on both familiarity and formality.” Rogers, she added, “spoke directly to each child on the other end of a TV screen with care and respect. And he switched from his work jacket to a cardigan to show them it was time to relax and share a moment together.” The predictability of Rogers changing into that cardigan provided children—some of whom did not have parents coming home at the same time every day—a sense of comfort and security. A father of two in his actual life, he used his clothes, and the cardigan, in particular, to present himself as a caring, parental figure.
The poster for the 2018 documentary about Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also depicts him putting on that distinguishable red garment. The director, Morgan Neville, mentioned that he set out “to make a film not about Fred Rogers’s story, but about his ideas.” Indeed, the film evoked pleasant memories of my own childhood, and as an adult I have come to appreciate his advocacy and Rogers’s one overarching idea of “making goodness attractive” even more. I am mindful, however, that although Rogers is remembered for his humanity and being an iconic presence on television for generations of children, he’s almost always wearing that cardigan when sharing a life lesson, singing a song, or playing the part of a puppeteer. I wonder how much significance, and to what consequence, even if unintended, that red cardigan helped Rogers in getting his message across. As a court management professional, does it make a difference in how we dress when we are overseeing the daily administration of the courts? If so, to what extent does our attire affect us as a manager serving the public?
“It’s a tribute to the city being the design and fashion capital of the world.”
I was seated outdoors at the Caffe Giallo Verde Rosso and didn’t notice Toni until she spoke. We were meeting at the café in a piazza adjacent to the metro station following a very brief layover I had in Milan. Toni was vacationing in the Lombardy region, so we decided to meet for the few hours I had to spare for an early dinner.
“You startled me—which way did you come from?” I asked.
“I noticed that—I was pretty much right in front of you for the last 100 feet or so, but you were fixated on the sculpture, so I thought I’d give you the lowdown on it,” she said as she pulled out the other chair from beneath the two-person circular table and sat. She asked if I had ordered anything while motioning to the waiter for some water.
The waiter brought over a bottle of mineral water, filled our glasses, and then took our order of two cups of Earl Grey. The tea was brought over and simmered in a mesh tea ball infuser that contained the loose assam and blue cornflower leaves pressed in bergamot oil. As we began sipping the citrusy and malty amalgam, I watched the swaths of commuters and tourists weave in and around the mammoth sculpture as they were arriving and departing the train station. I’m gazing at the multicolored thread wrapping its way through the eye of the steel needle that’s impaling the ground when Toni remarks, “It’s called Ago, Filo e Nodo—translated, that means “Needle, Thread and Knot.”
“For a place that prides itself on creativity, I’m surprised they couldn’t come up with something a little more original,” I joked.
“Ha—but you know that many sculptures are named based on their literal representation—like Picasso’s Guitar or Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box.”
“Or Anish Kapoor’s Bean in Chicago,” I added.
“Actually, that’s the informal, colloquial name. Kapoor’s sculpture is actually called Cloud Gate,” Toni corrected. “I think if you surveyed the Milanese public, however, you’d get a mixed reaction on their thoughts and feelings about this sculpture.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because it’s quite different, and it certainly stands out relative to the rest of the architecture in the city. While some folks embrace that and enjoy it, others don’t appreciate this sort of profound deviation,” Toni reasoned.
“If nothing else, it makes for a good landmark when meeting someone.”
“I would agree with that, so long as the person is not entirely distracted by it that he doesn’t see the other person he’s expecting to meet,” Toni joked.
“Being in the center of the fashion world as we are, I’d like to pick your brain on a recent issue I’m laboring over.”
“Related to fashion?” Toni questioned.
“Not fashion necessarily, but professional attire.” I responded.
“I see. So, pick away.”
“I was walking into the court the other morning and I saw one of our employees coming through security wearing camouflage fatigues and a t-shirt.”
“Are you sure that it was one of your employees?” Toni asked.
“I wondered initially; more than 1,200 employees work there, and I’m still relatively new to this court. But he was wearing an employee lanyard with his ID clearly visible, and that caught my attention. I was going to pull him to the side when we came into the building when I noticed another employee walking in, and she had on denim shorts and flip-flops.”
“So, one person looked like he was reporting to boot camp and the other looked as though she was headed to the beach,” Toni concluded.
“Exactly. I was taken aback a bit, particularly since the environment at my last job was the complete opposite with respect to how most people came dressed for the office.”
“How are you planning to address it? Do you even plan to?” Toni asked.
“I’m not sure yet. I was thinking about forming a committee so that they can develop a work attire policy, but I don’t want to be perceived as being superficial.”
“Do you think that it makes a difference in terms of customer service?” She inquired as though she already knew my answer.
“Absolutely,” I countered.
“Hmm. Tell me how.”
“It may sound superficial, but everyone is judged—no pun intended—based on their appearance.”
“At least initially,” she added.
“Yes—but that initial impression is very important. And it may sound trite—and I hate to admit it—but you almost never get a second chance to make a first impression. And for an organization such as the court, maintaining that perception of professionalism is more important than in other work environments because of the personal matters and affairs that we manage.”
“Go on,” Toni encouraged not yet completely satisfied.
“We must present ourselves in a manner—and frankly, the public should expect it—which projects confidence in our service and creates an environment that is dignified. At the very least, our attire should make managers and staff clearly distinguishable from the public.”
“Sounds to me like you have the rough draft of the policy’s purpose,” Toni said.
“You think?” I asked.
“Yes—your statements persuaded me, although I didn’t need much convincing. This notion of being professionally dressed is an artifice, and yet it’s so much more than that.”
“That’s actually a very good way of describing it,” I said.
“If the formality of a policy doesn’t convince employees of its importance, you can always appeal to their sensibilities by mentioning what Douglas Coupland said.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Making eye contact with adults while dressed as a clown is risky.”
Clothing has what psychologists refer to as a “talisman” effect—the idea that an object has or is associated with “supernatural” qualities, which influences the performance of the wearer and the perceptions of those around him. By taking advantage of this, a manager can, in fact, make him- or herself more successful by simply dressing better; as the adage goes, dress for the job you want and not the job you have. Consider, for instance, the Adam and Galinsky study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology where participants who were given a white lab coat to wear performed better on a scientific reasoning test than those participants who were told to wear casual, layperson clothes. An even more fascinating finding was that when the test was repeated and the lab coat was replaced with an artist’s smock, the variance disappeared. The suggestion here is that participants who believed they were “dressed” as scientists became better scientists. Along the same vein, can a manager who dresses for the part be a better manager? The data seem to support the possibility.
The American costume designer Edith Head may not have been entirely right when she said, “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it,” but she was certainly onto something. For example, research published in the August 2015 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science demonstrated that subjects who wore formal clothing while taking a cognitive test scored better in their abstract thinking compared to those wearing casual clothing. And a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, which evaluated several male athletes of comparable age and stature, found that combat fighters wearing red as opposed to blue were able to lift a heavier weight before a match and had a faster heart rate during the competition.
Research findings examining judgments have also generally shown that people prefer to see individuals dressed in accordance with their expectations. For instance, people expect a surgeon to be dressed in scrubs. There is, however an interesting exception that was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The 2014 study examined the reactions people had on others who deviated from socially established norms. A gentleman, for example, who was wearing a red bow tie as opposed to a black one at a formal affair was perceived as being more competent and having a higher status. In another scenario that was tested, the status and proficiency ratings of a professor who wore red Converse sneakers while giving a lecture were higher than those who dressed more in line with expectations. The findings revealed that slight deviations were viewed positively because persons value individuality and appreciate the confidence that he or she exudes in taking on those “social costs” to risk being different. Bear in mind that the operative word here is slight; in the data, only minor deviations are supported. Any more deviation—the balance of which is an art itself—and one runs the risk of being Coupland’s clown.
The most important goal in life is to be a good person in each of one’s various roles—parent, colleague, neighbor, etc. Individuals should strive to be that good person so that others seek to emulate that “goodness” in the way Rogers aspired—compelling and transmissible from person to person and group to group. As important as good intentions are, one’s appearance is the antecedent. The judgment of others regarding one’s character, expertise, and intentions only comes after they have had sufficient time to observe you; until such time has elapsed, they are judging you based on how you look. As a result, exterior manifestations matter. This is particularly true (and crucial) at the outset of “getting to know” the person and during those short exchanges in which there is no benefit of time to truly get a sense of the individual’s character. Consider the types of abbreviated interactions that occur at a customer-service counter at the courthouse where the public is confronted with first and foremost the appearance of the staff person. To the extent that the court expects itself to be a respected authority and be presented in a professional light, the attire of managers and staff should be taken just as seriously as other areas of customer-service training.
Evidence shows that the way an individual is dressed can sometimes hamper the implementation of an idea, particularly if it goes against convention and accepted practice, because that is what other individuals see (and not hear) first. There are few places and occasions in life where what a person wears is of vital importance. The place of employment is one of those few places, and the daily interaction that the manager has with judges, staff, and the public comprises one of those occasions. Dressing for the part matters—both in terms of one’s own self-interest, as well as the interests of the court organization in which he or she has been entrusted to represent. To do your best necessarily means feeling your best. Although the manager is not capable of governing all circumstances that can influence her performance, her choice to dress as the consummate court professional is within her control—a significant advantage that should not be disregarded. Dressing for the part does not mean being cut from a uniform mold, but rather developing a signature look that is professionally tasteful. There is a balance and art to it, which shows you need not sacrifice your individuality and comfort so feel free to wear the sneakers, but just make sure they match the cardigan.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at email@example.com.