Perception in the workplace: Psychology hacks to boost your professional image
Engagement 5 minute read

Perception in the workplace: Psychology hacks to boost your professional image

Andra Mircioiu | June 16, 2020

Like all good adages, the saying “The mind works in mysterious ways” continues to hold true today. While science has made incredible progress in studying how the mind works and how it interacts with our body and with the environment, there’s still a lot left to learn.

However, what we already know about the mind can have significant professional benefitsparticularly when it comes to perception in the workplace, i.e. how your employees are seen and how they see each other

Perception can affect collaboration and communication between employees or teams, which can then affect engagement and productivity. 

Candidates often hear the advice to “dress for the job you want”. While it’s true that clothes can affect how others perceive you in the workplace, your choice of outfit can also affect how you perceive yourself. 

A study at Northwestern University found that what you wear might help you focus and perform better on certain cognitive tasks, an effect known as “enclothed cognition.”

In the study, subjects were divided into three groups and asked to perform cognitive tasks. One group wore a white doctor’s coat during the task and one group wore a white painter’s coat. The third test group only looked at the doctor’s coat before completing the task. 

All three groups interacted with the exact same type of coat, with no visual difference between the doctor’s coat and the painter’s coat—they were only described as a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat to the subjects. 

The group who wore the doctor’s coat performed significantly better than the other two groups.

Adam Galinksy, the lead researcher on this study, spoke to The New York Times about the study and is quoted as saying: “The effect occurs only if you actually wear the coat and know its symbolic meaning—that physicians tend to be careful, rigorous and good at paying attention. Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.” 

You don’t need to order a doctor’s coat for each of your employees, however. According to Yoon-Hee Kwon, a researcher at North Illinois University, it’s not just about wearing a doctor’s clothes, but clothes that are appropriate for your unique profession.

Yoon-Hee Kwon’s 1994 study explores how clothing impacts the way you rate yourself on ten traits: responsibility, competence, knowledgeability, professionalism, honesty, reliability, intelligence, trustworthiness, willingness to work hard, and efficiency. Depending on whether the subjects rated themselves as “properly dressed” or “not properly dressed,” she found that, when wearing appropriate clothes, people tended to rate themselves higher on those ten traits.

How the physical world affects your thoughts   

Galinsky’s term “enclothed cognition” stems from a field of psychological study called Embodied Cognition, which studies how the aspects of the body shape cognitive function. 

In their book about embodied cognition (Metaphors We Live By), authors Mark Johnson and George Lakoff argue that metaphors such as “cold” or “warm” for personalities or “heaviness” for importance actually affect the circuitry of our brain and, consequently, our behaviour—meaning that our brain is influenced, to some degree, by our experiences in the physical world. 

In one study of embodied cognition, researchers at Yale University found that subjects who held hot drinks rated others’ personalities as warmer whereas those who held cold drinks rated others generally colder. 

Another study from the University of Plymouth found that physical cleanliness encourages less severe moral judgements. 

Power plays and superhero stances

Embodied cognition isn’t just for items we carry or wear. How someone positions their body can affect their thoughtsand perception in the workplace regarding their attitude and personality. 

One study actually found that people tend to lean forward when talking about the future and lean back when talking about the past, reinforcing the metaphor that the future is “ahead”. 

You can make yourself feel more powerful by making yourself appear physically larger. As a few studies show, if you stand up and stretch your arms above your head, i.e. make yourself as large as possible, your body will increase production of testosterone and decrease the production of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress). 

These hormone changes end up making you feel more authoritative, powerful and increase your likelihood of making risky decisions. Conversely, if you make yourself smaller by crossing your legs or hunching, you’ll likely feel—and act—less confident.

A few more tips on positive employee perception 

  • Stand in front of a mirror in a “superhero stance” before asking for a promotion or joining a tough meeting: keep your legs shoulder-width apart, lift your chin, and put your hands on your hips to physically signal a confidence boost to your brain. 
  • Make eye contact and nod at people in a room to show them how glad you are to be in their presence. Pause briefly before speaking so that they know you're speaking with intent. According to Psychology Today, these tricks can help you make a good impression right away.
  • Want to appear more open? Stand with your palms facing upward. This “open” stance makes people assume you’re friendly.
  • If you could do with some positivity, fake a smile. This is known as smile therapy and can help you reduce stress, even if you’re not genuinely feeling happy. 

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