Could ‘The Red Sneakers Effect’ Boost Your Career? It Depends.

You might have noticed that norms have changed in recent years in regards to workplace dress codes. A few decades ago, the introduction of Casual Fridays helped offices blaze new trails in terms of attire, partly in the hopes that comfier workers might feel more creative. Next, Silicon Valley professionals took things a step further. (See: Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie.)

red sneakers effect
Image Credit: Mabel Amber/Pexels

These days, some companies have relaxed their dress codes, either formally or informally, and many workers have eagerly made the switch — ditching their dress pants for “nice” jeans and trading out their dress shoes for their fanciest sneakers. But, how is this change in attire affecting businesses and impacting individual careers? A study from Harvard University sheds some light on the ramifications of casual dress, and there are a few takeaways that stand out — they relate to what’s being called “The Red Sneakers Effect.” Here’s what you need to know.

What is The Red Sneakers Effect?

Researchers found that intentionally wearing something that causes you to stand out from the crowd around the office, like red sneakers for example, could send a positive message to others — one that communicates confidence, power, and status.

“Nonconforming behaviors, as costly and visible signals, can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others,” researchers explained in their report.

But, there is a little more to it than just that. The red sneaker effect doesn’t work for everyone under any condition. There are a few stipulations to keep in mind.

  1. It has to be perceived as being done deliberately.

Intentionally shirking dress-code norms is one thing, but doing so without meaning to is another matter entirely. Dressing inappropriately, when unintentional, can convey inexperience or lack of professionalism. But, when it’s done on purpose, the message that’s communicated is practically reversed.

The researchers explain that “positive inferences” come from a place of “perceived autonomy.” In other words, when someone intentionally violates the expectations and norms, it communicates a certain independence, a willingness to do what one wants even if those desires violate some expectation. This can be interpreted as a signifier of status, strength, and confidence. However, when that same line is crossed unintentionally, something entirely different is communicated.

  1. Status matters.

Researchers also made a point to note that dressing casually (meaning, more casually that norms suggest) is most often done by high ranking members of an organization, like CEOs. It’s quite possible that these folks are received and perceived differently than most workers would be if they did the same.

The takeaway:

The question becomes, should you try wearing “red sneakers” (or something similarly casual and bold) around your office? Well, that depends. First of all, if you do decide to go for it, it’s important that you be perceived as intentionally shirking the dress code in favor of more casual duds. This will impact the way your actions are perceived. Next, consider whether or not your status in the organization is high enough to really pull this off. But, if you’re unsure whether or not this can work for you, consider that it might not be worth the risk.

Check out the report, The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity for more information.

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