Hannah Pearson
By on March 2, 2014 in Career
Read time: 8 minutes | No Comments

Can you rule the world in flip flops?

“I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world. Fortunately for the world, I have not found the correct footwear to achieve that goal.”

So said Bette Midler. But fear not – this isn’t a post about the latest must-have shoes to match this colour palette or that latest design, but rather an observation on office life in Malaysia.

For the past two years, I’ve watched in amazement as women in Malaysia teeter into the office after completing the morning commute in their wedges or glamorous high heels, only to change into a dowdy pair of well-worn slippers (flip flops, as we call them in the UK). What amazes me is the contrast with western countries, where it’s the polar opposite.

In London well turned-out women in their glamorous suits or dresses are a regular sight on the tube, but cast an eye to the ground and the glamour instantly disappears, replaced by an unenviable pair of greying trainers. These UK women change into the teetering high heels or smart flats once they arrive at the office. Believing that there is no need to impress fellow commuters, it’s a whole different ball game, of course, once at the office.

Sure, you might argue, and as the people I asked on Quora did, that slippers are way more comfortable to wear in the office, as Malaysia is a hot country, so you need better ventilated shoes for your feet. However, having been subjected to arctic conditions for the past two years in my office, where I can regularly been seen wearing thick trousers, jumper, scarf and even on one occasion, a woolly hat – I certainly don’t follow their logic there. A pair of furry UGG boots perhaps!

However, that wasn’t really the point to my question. Instead, I wanted to know why people felt the urge to be comfortable at the office, if wearing slippers affected how their colleagues or bosses saw them, or even if it impacted on how they saw themselves.

You are what you wear

You’re doubtless aware of the countless pop psychology articles telling us that how we dress influences the way others see us and our ability to perform. We know that women who dress in a more masculine way at job interviews are more likely to be hired, that doctors who are more professionally dressed are trusted more and even that teaching assistants who dress more formally are seen as more intelligent – albeit less fun.

Recent studies have extended that even further and have shown that what you wear not only affects others, but also your own internal perception and actions.

Enclothed cognition theory, coined by Adam and Galinsky, is founded on the basic premise that what you wear has a systematic influence on our psychological process. The researchers carried out three experiments to test their theory.

The first involved participants putting on a white coat that they were told was a doctor’s coat, and to perform tasks requiring attentiveness and accuracy. They found that those participants wearing the doctor’s coat did markedly better than their peers who were not wearing one.

The second experiment involved participants who wore a white coat that they were either told belonged to a doctor, or to an artist. Their hypothesis was that since doctors were associated with being accurate and attentive and artists with creativity, those participants who knew that they were wearing a doctor’s coat would have the highest accuracy scores – again, they were proved right.

The third experiment was to see whether wearing the doctor’s coat actually mattered, so some of the participants merely saw the coat in front of them whilst they wrote an essay, while others wore the coat and wrote an essay. This time, merely seeing the coat had no impact on the results: the participants had to be wearing it for it to have an influence on their behaviour.

Adam and Galinsky therefore drew the conclusion that by the physical act of wearing something that symbolised a quality, the wearer’s psychological processes could be altered and their performance improved.

Does slipper-wearing affect how you think?

What does that mean, then, for the average slipper-wearer? Well, as my survey on Quora showed, slippers embody comfort, ease and even bring a holiday-esque feeling. So, if enclothed cognition can indeed affect our thinking process, then how might wearing slippers impact on an employee’s work? Would it be logical that they might feel a little less engaged and focused?

A US study focused on the impact of wearing flip flops in the office. The research found that for 71% of respondents stress in the workplace was high and that the more formal a dress code, the more stressful the work environment.

However, for the regular flip flop wearer, their stress levels were more likely to be at low or non-existent levels compared with those who wore more formal options. Compared to loafers or flats, flip flop wearers were twice as likely to have low to no stress levels, and compared to high heels  and lace-ups, flip flop aficionados were nearly three times as likely to report low or no stress. That’s a serious difference in attitudes towards work-related stress.

Can we say that not being stressed is an indication that slipper wearers are taking work more casually? It’s hard to say. However, there is some serious criticism of these claims to less stress, with one fierce spokesperson, Judith Rasband, the director of the Conselle Institute of Image Management, claiming, “The business casual trend isn’t about fashion. It’s about the whole casualisation of America that began in the turbulent 1960s. It’s about the general decline in civility.”

That wearing slippers to the office will lead to a general decline of civility is going a little too far (definitely shades of a Lady Bracknell with ‘acts of violence in Grosvenor Square’), but there is anecdotal evidence that relaxing dress codes, at least in American workplaces, has a negative effect on employees. Surveys have found a rise in tardiness and absenteeism, and even a more flirtatious behaviour after dress-down policies were introduced.

Others have also pointed to a link between how people dress and their behaviour: one showed that people who were dressed more formally used more formal adjectives to describe themselves. Business school students even feel more authoritative, trustworthy and competent when wearing formal business attire and significantly less productive in casual attire.

Personal preference plays its part

There’s no doubt that personal preference is also an important factor that affects how much you are influenced psychologically by wearing certain clothes (or shoes). In the same study as above, wearing formal or casual attire didn’t have much effect on people who preferred wearing business casual. Rather, it was the people who were at either end of the spectrum who, when forced to wear clothes that they didn’t prefer, felt more cognitive dissonance and were therefore more affected by what they were wearing.

Another important factor is the office environment itself: if everyone wore hoodies and jeans to work and you showed up in a suit, then regardless if whether you preferred it or not, you’d stick out like a sharply tailored premier league manager surrounded by his tracksuit wearing players on the pitch (only likely without the six figure salary to go along with it). That discomfort would affect your performance.

And for those who work for themselves? Even 99u, a blog for freelancers and creatives, advise their readers to change out of their pyjamas when working from home, to give them a psychological boost to get started on the day’s work and to be productive.

Looking like a boss

To keep on top of what is acceptable attire in the workplace is a constant battle, and as Sylvia Ann Hewlett on the Harvard Business Review blog says,

“It is one thing to grasp the importance of looking professional, and quite another to interpret the ever-shifting notions that define a professional appearance.”

She found that half of women and 37% of men feel that their appearance and what she calls executive presence are inextricably linked. The men and women she interviewed felt that looking well-turned out inspires confidence in the team, which is the keystone of authentic leaders. Taking that a step further with enclothed cognition, you could surmise that if you yourself felt that you didn’t look the part and weren’t wearing those clothes that you associated with executive presence, you might not even feel you embodied it, even if you had all the abilities.

Women at a disadvantage

Men are often given advice on their appearance and style, by both women and other men: they need a breath mint, they should wear a tie, or the colours don’t match. But out of fear of a sexual harassment case, or simply hurting their feelings, women do not usually receive such direct advice and feedback.  Women instead seek advice from friends or family, or even reference the fashion pages in magazines, encouraging us to dress sexier or more fashionable than is appropriate or in our best interests, for the workplace.

Women are instead playing by invisible rules which we only learn about years later, after we have broken them and gone too far to turn back.

A few years back, the Swiss bank, UBS, tried to level the playing field when it came to advice for both male and female employees on what they should (and shouldn’t) wear. At the time, the 43 page style bible was widely mocked for going over the top in minute detail: everything from wearing flesh-coloured underwear for the ladies to the exact length a skirt should be (mid-knee to a couple of inches below the knee, if you were wondering). And for the gentlemen the perfect length for their socks (just below the knee so that they don’t flash too much flesh) and even how to tie the perfect knot  – and no doubt tying themselves up in a tangled twist at the same time.

However, Hewlett points out that this guide might have actually been a vital tool for women to scale the corporate ladder and to capture the look (and feel) of the elusive executive presence.

Of course, in an ideal world, how well we perform, and not what we wear, should really be the focus. Be that as it may, if enclothed cognition holds true, then we are personifying the values of the clothes or footwear that we wear.

Flip flops will never be objects of power

So even if we feel most comfortable in slippers, then subconsciously, those values that the slippers represent would start to affect our cognitive process. The only way that their association will change would be if we were to start to see movies portraying presidents wearing flip flops in the oval office, or the Prime Minister at No. 10 at a cabinet meeting in his slippers. Then we might come to associate slippers as objects of power instead of casualness.

But until we see this and cultural norms change, I doubt that we will ever feel that slippers are symbols of anything other than ease, gay abandonment or even retirement!

What does this mean for the ladies in Malaysia? Think about it: when you go into a meeting, you change your slippers into your more formal shoes. Yet meetings aren’t the only time at work where you need to make an impression or perform your best. And how many men do you see wandering around the office in slippers? Hardly any.

As women, aren’t we already at enough of a psychological disadvantage without discriminating against ourselves even further by slipping into shoes that will subtly influence how hard we work, no matter how much more comfy they are?

It’s fairly safe to say that we can firmly discard one type of footwear in which to rule the world: it certainly ain’t slippers.