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Should you wear red sneakers to your interview?

Posted by Khaled Kteily on in Interviews
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A recent Harvard Business School study reaches a fascinating conclusion about social status in prestigious and non-prestigious environments. Titled 'The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity', it gives us some insight into how trying to fit in can have the opposite effect you intended. 

The key takeaway: If you are already in a prestigious setting
(working at a top firm, studying at a top school, etc.) then doing something nonconformist can give you a higher perceived social status.

For example: a business school professor wearing a t-shirt and sporting a beard or a trainer for an executive education program wearing a suit and red sneakers are considered as “having the guts to do what they’re doing. They have points to spare. They’re such a high-status person that they don’t need to conform to the rules.”

On the other hand, if you're not already in a prestigious role the inverse is true. Business professors at less prestigious universities were perceived as having slightly more status when wearing a suit and tie. 

So what does that mean for you

Have you ever heard the question, "you won't get it if you want it too badly?" This is not exactly a dating website (have you tried www.consultantslovemodels.com?) but this is true of your relationships as well as your career. The people you're around can tell when you want something badly, and that makes you lose social status.

I've worked one-on-one with dozens of candidates and the most 'impressive' ones are those that are so self-confident (not cocky, but confident) that they come across as wanting the job, not needing it. These are generally the candidates who get the offer. A mentee of mine who interviewed at Bain - his dream firm - didn't get an offer because, in his words, "I just wanted it too badly and they could feel it."

The same idea applies to your career. The consultants with the highest perceived social status are those who aren't afraid to be a little weird - "I'm so good at my job that I can afford to be quirky and people will still want me on their projects". This is true in part because when you're not doing well at your job, you can't afford to be a non-conformist. When you are doing well, people care more about your skills than how you dress - and my friend who carries around his pink 'Hello Kitty' wallet can attest to that. 

Now let's go back to the original question: should you wear red sneakers to an interview? Probably not. But the fundamental idea is sound: don't be afraid to stand out. When every other candidate is trying desperately to "be the right fit" for the firm, those who stand out are ones who are comfortable enough to do something different.

I've heard of students who challenge their interviewer on assumptions, come up with some weird ideas (e.g. "We should fire this client. What they're trying to do is not in line with the firm's values"), or are comfortable enough to stand up during an interview and start drawing on the whiteboard. I mention this idea in Step 4 of the '6 Steps to Success' - in the section on 'Wow' factors. 

So before your next interview and think, "What can I do to come across less needy and more confident in my interviews? What will my 'wow' factors be?

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Guest Dec 15, 2017