Whether at work or play we tend to experience tremendous social pressure to conform. While rebels have a certain heroic status, there is a lot of evidence from psychological studies that we tend to revert to conformity when there is opposition from our social peers, especially those that matter to us like our family, friends or work group.
Conformity is a feature of many animals’ behaviour, not just humans. Researchers have found evidence of social conformity in monkeys, humpback whales and even cockroaches. Scientists believe that conformity gives evolutionary benefits. It kept us part of the group which gave us protection, mates and support for finding shelter and food. As a result, behaviour outside the norms can face strong social sanction.
But in a series of studies by researchers at the Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School it was found that sometimes breaking the rules can boost your social standing. For example, luxury store salespeople attributed higher status and wealth to casually dressed shoppers, and executives saw unconventionally dressed individuals as more competent. The researchers call this the “red sneaker effect.”
The studies demonstrate that people confer higher status and competence on those that do not conform to the norms rather than conforming individuals. These positive judgements are made based on the signals of nonconformity such as dress and are associated with perceived autonomy. However before you go and buy red sneakers to wear with your suit the study also found that judgements depended on the need for uniqueness in the person making the judgement. So, check out how much your boss likes quirky dress or behaviour and don’t wear the red sneakers the first time a new client comes to the office. The positive judgements can disappear when the observer is unfamiliar with the environment, when the nonconforming behaviour is depicted as unintentional, and when you and the observer, the client or boss do not share the expected norms and standards of formal conduct.
The research was conducted by Silvia Bellezza, she, explains that social capital is like currency, and those who intentionally break the rules appear to be able to afford it. Our automatic assumption is that they are special in other ways too. Unconventional behaviour and dress codes may offer an opportunity for creating a distinctive impression. In their paper, Bellezza et al. point to executives and high-end consumers’ increasing tendency to wear “crazy socks.” Of course, the mind goes immediately to Jon Snow on channel 4 news.
Other research suggests leaders who have a distinctive style are the types of leaders that we value the most; inspired by their courage and resiliency, we seek to copy them. They are the most respected. It’s also possible that they are best at finding new ways, unconventional ways of solving problems
Whilst Bellezza’s research was about luxury stores sales assistants and executive opinions of unconventional behaviours. They can mark you out from the crowd but they can also exclude you from the group so they need to be used with care and you need to ensure you have skills or abilities which the group value over and above the unconventional.
Silvia Bellezza is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior and symbolic consumption. You can read the full article https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/mygsb/faculty/research/pubfiles/13988/The%20Red%20Sneakers%20Effect%202014.pdf