Inspite of being a supervisor in an insurance firm, Richard dresses like a gym instructor – shorts and T-shirts without the sleeves. He interacts with customers all day long, and his manager, Neil, is not convinced with Richard’s choice of dressing. Neil feels, “If I walked into an office and this was who greeted me, I would assume that the organization is extremely casual and laid back. It wouldn’t instill confidence.” If you were Neil, how would you communicate this to Richard?

According to Amy Jen Su, author of Own The Room, how we show up and deliver our work is as important as the content. We’d prefer if looks didn’t matter, but that’s rarely the case. So, when our team members don’t dress their part, bringing the same to their awareness is a delicate task. Here’s how to navigate it effectively:

Assess your reaction. Reflect on whether your personal preferences are coloring your reaction. Amy Su recommends you look for concrete evidence that the person’s appearance is affecting their success: does it violate any norms? Are there cultural nuances at play? Has it distracted people from focusing on the content the employee is delivering? Have you heard negative feedback from senior management?

Prepare for the conversation. Preparation is key to decide what you say. Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a training company, says, “Focus on your intention and communicate that you want them to be successful.” Don’t make this about right and wrong, decent and indecent. Emphasize on how their appearance can help them improve work relationships. Grenny and Su report that people welcome this feedback, when it is delivered well.

Be direct, and take responsibility. Your goal: to enhance their visibility and influence at work. Model how you would like them to be. Dress well, and deliver your message directly. Su suggests something like, “I want to give you feedback on your overall presence and make sure that your appearance is aligned with the high-quality professional work that you do.”

However, if your company does not have a dress code, take responsibility for not sharing your expectations. Say, “I realize that as a manager I’ve had some expectations and haven’t shared them. That’s my fault.” We can’t hold someone accountable for what they did not know!

And finally, just listen. Make it a two-way conversation. Ask them how they feel about the feedback, and allow room for emotions. Be kind, offer to help, and display the sensitivity it deserves.

How did Neil do it?

He invited Richard for a walk, and opened the conversation by complimenting his work. Then, he owned the problem: “I just realized that I’ve failed to share with you the expectations around dressing that go along with this position. I am sorry about that. I feel it is easier to lead when you look like a leader. If you notice other leaders in our office, you will see that they don’t wear shorts/ tank tops. Looking sharp and neat allows people to take you seriously. And I want that for you.” Richard responded well, and infact, two weeks later, thanked Neil for the feedback.

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