Are you dressing for success? A recent study reveals how clothing can be a big deal in deal making, but probably not in the way you suspect.

My 13-year-old son recently joined me at a conference that included leading figures from a wide variety of fields – the common denominator being that everyone came to discuss innovative ideas and research and learn from the others. Every attendee presented, including the teenagers attending. In preparing for it, I sat down with my son to discuss a crucial element of such conferences – what to wear.

“You’re kidding,” you might say. “Shouldn’t you focus exclusively on the substantive issue that your son will be discussing on his panel?”

Actually, no. While the substantive issues certainly need prep, the research also shows that a person’s clothing choices for a negotiation impacts their likelihood of achieving their goals. And many informal negotiations take place at conferences.

In fact, the April 2019 Harvard Negotiation Briefings just highlighted this in an article entitled “Dressing for success: How wealth and status affect negotiation.”

Consider the following choice, described in the Briefings: You’re an event planner meeting with a prospective client who might hire you to organize a party for 50 guests. The prospective client shows up wearing a nice-looking suit and tie. Alternatively, imagine if the prospective client shows up wearing a casual shirt and jeans.

Who Gets The Better Deal?

According to research from a 2018 study, typically the study participants quoted prospective clients wearing a suit and tie a significantly higher price than prospective clients wearing a casual shirt and jeans. Study participants assumed the prospective client in the suit was significantly wealthier, and could better afford a higher quote. 

Do you make the same offer in each situation? According to research from a 2018 study, most do not. Overall, the study participants quoted the suit and tie guy a significantly higher price than the shirt and jeans guy.

The Briefings noted that “people judged the man in the suit to be significantly wealthier than the man in jeans [and could thus] better afford an expensive party than the casually dressed man, and they padded their opening offer accordingly.”

Interestingly, this difference disappeared when the participants were asked – before making their first move – to consider the alternatives the client might have to their deal. Why? Because the event planners then considered that the “wealthier” client more likely had a strong alternative to their deal, thus making him likelier to reject an extreme first move.

What can we conclude from this and related research, and how should we dress for various negotiations?

1. Dig Below the Surface

Don’t make significant decisions based solely on superficial status cues like clothing or appearance-related perceptions

Appearances can be deceiving. Remember Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman when she walked into the Beverly Hills store looking like she couldn’t afford anything and was given the cold shoulder by the store clerk? Her unlimited budget to buy whatever she wanted went to other stores.

2. Determine Your Clothing Strategy

Strategically evaluate how your counterpart might view your clothing – and consider conforming/dressing similarly

What you wear to a job interview or client presentation makes a difference. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wore his signature t-shirt and hoodie when he met with investors before Facebook’s 2012 IPO. Yet he wore a conservative suit and tie to his congressional hearings in April 2018 to discuss Facebook’s user-privacy breaches.

The New York Times’ fashion editor, quoted in the Briefings, called it his “I’m sorry suit” that communicated to “suspicious, establishment lawmakers” that “I am in your house. I will accept your rules.”

3. Beware of Internal Biases Based on Appearance

Beware of your psychological tendencies toward similar-looking individuals

Don’t automatically favor others in a negotiation if they dress or seem like you. And don’t automatically disfavor others if they appear unlike you.

Keep in mind also what some researchers have called the “red sneakers effect” – the notion that, per the Briefings, some individuals “confer high status and confidence on people who dress unconventionally because they seem above the rules.”

4. Fancy Dress & Status Symbols Can Backfire

Super nice status symbols can trigger envy and resentment – and thus backfire

A 2009 study found that emissions inspectors were far more likely to fraudulently allow regular vehicles to pass than luxury cars. According to work by Harvard Kennedy School professor Iris Bohnet, “envy and distress resulting from social comparisons [to those of higher status] can lead to impasse in negotiation.”

The solution? Measure yourself against your peers, if at all, and not against those who have more experience, money, etc.

5. Determine Plan Bs to Mitigate Downsides

Considering parties’ alternatives/Plan Bs can help you eliminate the negative impact of dress-related misperceptions

So what did my son wear at the conference? Collared shirts with nice pants. I feel like that was a negotiation success.

Latz’s Lesson: Don’t discount the impact of how you dress. And when in doubt, dress up.  

* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.

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