There has been quite a bit said recently about what is appropriate to wear to work – including a suggestion that a major Government IT project failed because the formally dressed civil servants and the more casually attired digital folk fell out over who was correctly dressed. Having been a formal civil servant for many years (where some Ministers would not receive male staff without a suit and tie) and then gone on to work in the IT industry, I get the issue – if not the ridiculous lengths to which it apparently went in this case. I always felt comfortable in a suit and tie and I would have told you that it was because it looked professional and gave the right impression to other people.
However, I came to realise that it wasn’t really about other people at all – it was mostly about me. A business suit was a sort of comfort blanket for me; it made me feel more relaxed, comfortable in my role and said I was serious person without my having to prove it from the start. So I liked the feeling it gave me.
When I moved into the IT industry no-one wore a tie and very few wore suits. I nagged my CEO into wearing a tie for an important meeting with civil servants because that was what they would expect. He argued that what really mattered was being “authentic” and he was a person who had an informal approach with people and he never wore a tie. He was probably right. One of the keys to developing and progressing is knowing who we are, our strengths and skills and not having to live a pretence. If we want to be something else then let’s work towards becoming it – not just pretending. Coaching can really help here!
So should we just wear what we want whatever the occasion or circumstances? Why should it matter as long as we do a good job? Of course it shouldn’t matter at all – and those of us who like suits shouldn’t be made to feel any more uncomfortable than those who like holey jeans. There is probably one big “but”. Which is that while being “ authentic” is good, a sensitivity to the feelings and views of others is not only an attractive personal trait, it also makes for successful team working and is good for business. So do your own thing by all means but pause for thought before getting locked into a full on suits vs jeans war.