Once again, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School has published an interesting blog by Katie Shonk (In Business Negotiations, Dress the Part, June 24, 2014) discussing what we all know but do not always think about: as part of any negotiation, one must dress the part. As she explains, if one is negotiating with an apparel company, the worst thing one can do is wear a competitor’s clothing to the negotiation! Also, one may not want to show up in business attire but rather the apparel typical of the company with whom one is negotiating.

Why? As explained by Ms. Shonk:

Wearing a negotiating counterpart’s apparel or footwear to a meeting may seem like a gimmick. But “dressing to impress” for a negotiation sends subtle yet important messages: that you value and respect the company’s products, recognize the importance of small gestures, and are flexible enough to conform to their norms. That’s why bankers tend to dress down for meetings with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors, writes Mattioli. (Id.)

At the same time, dressing in a non-conforming style to everyone else in the negotiation has its merits. As Ms. Shonk notes, in one experiment, executives at a Harvard Business School seminar assessed the professor differently based on what shoes she was wearing. “When she wore red sneakers with her business attire (an unconventional choice) they tended to think she had more consulting clients and charged them higher fees as compared to when she was wearing more traditional shoes.” (Id.)

Similarly, other research found that clerks at hi-end stores in Milan believed that a shopper wearing gym clothes would spend more money shopping than one wearing a dress and/or a fur coat. The theory behind this is “….that dressing unconventionally in prestigious settings signals that a person’s status is so high that she doesn’t have to bother conforming to established norms. A classic example would be Mark Zuckerberg’s signature hoodies, which he reportedly wore even to meetings on Wall Street before his company’s IPO.” (Id.)

The conclusion Ms. Shonk draws from all of this research is that how you dress for a negotiation is directly connected to what you hope to accomplish. If you are asking for money or otherwise are a supplicant, show respect by dressing according to the norms of the one with whom you seek favor. However, if the playing field is level such that there is no real power imbalance between the parties, you may actually gain status by dressing casually or even wearing red sneakers!

In many of my mediations, I tend to wear running shoes or very comfortable red “bowling” shoes with my business suit, as I am doing a lot of walking back and forth between the parties. I do get fun comments once in awhile… but I have never given any thought about how it affects my ability (.i.e., success rate) to help the parties reach a settlement. Perhaps, I should start keeping statistics!

… Just something to think about!



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