Move Over, ‘Business Casual.’ There’s Another Kid on the Block: ‘Startup Casual.’
Picture Mark Zuckerberg in your mind. What’s he wearing? That’s right. A t-shirt.
In fact, Zuck’s signature gray t-shirt has become a fixture of his personal brand. If you didn’t picture that item of clothing, you probably imagined him wearing jeans and a hoodie, or some similarly casual combination. Those choices represent a significant departure from the typical business suits of CEOs past, and Zuckerberg certainly isn’t alone in this trend.
Dig through images of founders and employees from a few dozen different startups, and you’re bound to see a full spectrum of wardrobe choices, from founders well groomed and wearing fitted suits, to professionals dressed like college freshmen, with the median falling somewhere between “true casual” and “business casual.”
The whole trend has become so popular, among founders as well as employees, that it has a name: startup casual. But even if you are adopting the prototypical startup culture, should you dress that way? And should you allow your employees to follow suit (so to speak)?
There are a few possible motivations for this style of attire, based on psychological reasoning.
1. Decision-fatigue mitigation
Mark Zuckerberg claims that he wears the same jeans and gray T-shirt every day so he doesn’t expend any unnecessary mental energy on a decision that doesn’t matter. By his reasoning, wearing whatever you want (or wearing the same outfit every day) is a way to spare yourself from the anguish of decision fatigue (which is a real psychological phenomenon).
Given that decision fatigue can interfere with your decision-making abilities and add stress to your already-stressed life, this is sound reasoning. But given that decision fatigue is an accumulation of stress from many decisions, opting out of just one decision may not be enough to counteract it.
2. The underlying message
The casual dress code in Silicon Valley originated in part as a message about the nature of work. According to a piece by Deirdre Clemente in The Atlantic, “Life is less formal; the concept of ‘going to the office’ has fundamentally changed; American companies are now more results-oriented than process-oriented.”
Startup entrepreneurs would rather their employees focus on being productive, thinking creatively and getting results than on adhering to a strict formula; this philosophy may also be partially responsible for the increase in flexible hours and work-from-home opportunities.
Dressing casually, therefore, could send a message to your team that what someone does is more important than what he/she wears.
3. Independent thinking
Uniforms have long been used as a tool to encourage behavioral conformity — in prisons, schools and workplaces, alike. For example, one 2011 study found that “sharing the same visual cue can promote group identification process and eventually induce stronger conformity.”
For institutions with mandatory attendance and large groups to manage, this can be a good thing. But for startups, which rely heavily on creativity and independent thought, that kind of groupthink can be self-defeating.
Dressing casually, in your own style, may encourage employees to choose their own attire, possibly influencing them to break from established norms, to come up with more inventive ideas and voice more opposing opinions.
Dressing casually may also benefit you by making you seem more approachable. Employees who see their boss in casual clothing may be more likely to voice concerns, ideas and suggestions, which is beneficial for keeping your organization up to date and high in morale.
However, there’s evidence to suggest that the way you dress can change how you’re perceived in many different dimensions, including your intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority and organization.
And, as you might expect, the more professionally you dress, the better, for displaying these categories.
Understanding your priorities
The motivations are clear, but the question remains: Is it a good idea for you, the entrepreneur/founder/CEO of your organization, to dress casually?
That all depends on your priorities. There are some objective benefits to dressing casually and having your employees do likewise, such as setting a tone to favor results over processes and discouraging conformity and groupthink.
But on the other hand, dressing formally can help you establish and reinforce your reputation.
In any case, unless you’ve already proven yourself, dressing formally should be your default for meetings with clients, investors and other VIPs. How you handle matters internally is a question of preference and philosophy.
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