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Shall I wear a tie? Using discomfort to explore a sense of self

Mayvin's Tony Nicholls explores how the discomfort generated by something as simple as dress code can help us to understand our sense of self.
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Mayvin's Principal Consultant Tony Nicholls looks at how the discomfort generated by something as simple as dress code can help us to better understand our sense of self.

I've noticed several articles popping up lately about dress code and culture change, with headlines such as 'Do we still need to dress for the job'? An article I shared on LinkedIn recently, about CEO Mary Berra's decision to replace General Motor's 10-page dress code with just two words 'dress appropriately', got a lot of hits, it's a subject that seems to resonate deeply with my network.  And a recent McKinsey 'deep dive' case study of Zappos described how "the snipped ties pinned to the wall by the dress-code enforcer are a visitor’s first clue about Zappos’s culture".

I recently had my own experience of just how important something as simple as what we wear can be for our sense of self and the culture we are a part of.

I found myself asking colleagues: “Shall I wear a tie?” The answer wasn't, deep down, what I wanted to hear. Or was it? Maybe because I wasn't sure, I had asked the question in the first place.

I was due to attend a senior leader event at which the standard attire was “suited and booted.” It was an opportunity to network and gain access to new client organisations. Did I want to stand out or blend in? Did I want to be accepted as one of them, be seen to be slightly different, or risk rejection as being too ‘weird’? The answer that came back was an unequivocal “wear the tie.”

So, I did. I then felt distinctly uncomfortable all through the event. I didn’t feel ‘me.’ I felt I was ‘dumbing down’ in order to be accepted, even though I was actually ‘dressing up’ with an expensive suit and the all-important tie.

I think my discomfort came partly because of the HR Director in me. I always want to challenge a cultural norm that strongly suggests men should wear ties in order to be accepted and taken seriously as a player. On the basis this expectation doesn’t apply to women, it is quite clearly sexist. I felt I was colluding with a dress code that lies at the heart of society’s challenges around diversity, equality, power and trust.

When I go deeper and reflect on my past roles, I start to see that my discomfort is rooted in more existential angsts. Some years ago, I made a decision not to follow a route to more senior corporate leadership roles. This was partly because I was attracted to the consultant life and to pursuing my passion for Organisation Development. It was also due to a growing discomfort with the person I was having to be in order to get on as a corporate insider.

I now recognise that wearing a tie can sometimes lead me to relive periods in my life that required me to be someone I wasn't entirely comfortable with. In order to be successful I had to utilise a wide range of skills, of which I am proud. However, I also had to use my political ‘nous’ to make my way up the ladder. In particularly competitive environments, this meant deploying a certain amount of political manoeuvring. My being successful in these competitive environments always meant someone else was not so fortunate. The cake was only so big when it came to senior positions and higher rates of pay. I was left asking the question “Was I one of the ’nice guys’ pretending to be just enough of a ‘bad guy’ to get along?”

Whatever the reasons for feeling uncomfortable at the event, now referred to as ‘tie-gate’, the experience has presented a useful source of data. I’ve subsequently been actively trying to make sense of it. I have reflected by myself, discussed the experience with friends and colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, laughed at myself in the process.

I don’t expect definitive answers to come from my sense-making, nor eureka moments of insight. What I am hopeful of, and beginning to sense as a subtle shift, is a deepening recognition of self as revealed by a better understanding of my biases and preferences.

This work on self is vital for the ongoing development and health of my practice as an OD&D consultant. It is also vital for other professional practice areas, including mainstream operational management and leadership. It is therefore something Mayvin promotes as a mainstay of its offer when working directly within client systems or in developing OD&D capability. So, the next time you are feeling uncomfortable in a work or social setting, take a moment to recognise this as a new source of data. Then take some time to make sense of your experiences. It may be a very revealing exploration.

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