Personal Power Secret #5: Dress for Respect

He showed up looking fresh and ready to go, dressed in a decent pair of jeans, hiking boots, and a nice flannel shirt sporting a dark green plaid. If we were heading out for a hike, he would have fit right in with anyone we met in the woods.

And it’s true that my office was in a log cabin back then. So perhaps one could see why he thought his attire might be appropriate.

But we weren’t heading out for a hike.
He was coming in to see me.
For a job interview.

In fact, he was applying for a professional position as a master’s level clinician, at a nationally-recognized top notch treatment facility.

So here’s a tip for you: Don’t show up for a job interview in jeans.

Not even if the job might be in a log cabin.

Because he lost personal power the minute I saw him in the waiting room.


That’s how long you have to make an impression.

Like it or not, we all make unconscious assumptions based on appearance. When we meet someone – or heck, just get a glimpse of them crossing the street – we form an almost instant assessment, a mental impression that tells us something about that person.

Stable or not. Friendly or not.
Competent or not.

Years ago, a teen client of mine protested when I pointed out that his spiky green mohawk might – just possibly – have an impact on how his teachers treated him.

Well you shouldn’t judge people by how they look!” he complained.

Of course, he wouldn’t have had spiky green hair if he wasn’t aiming for a certain response. He used his appearance for his own version of personal power.


A kazillion years ago, we moved through the world in a much wilder way, living day to day by the strength of our wits.

Back then, our ability to make an instant assessment about someone we met might have made a difference in whether or not we survived the encounter.

That ability to quickly ‘size someone up’ is hard-wired into our unconscious brain, even today.

Even when we consciously fight it.

Are we always right in our instant assessment?
Of course not.

Does it happen anyway?

Girls figure this out about age 12, seems to me, using hair, makeup, and clothing choices for perceived social power. They use it to gain position among their peers, attract a date, and sometimes – to push their parents’ buttons! :)

We adults can also use appearance in a conscious and strategic way.

Because the same thing happens at work, where our dress impacts how we respond to each other – consciously AND unconsciously.

Used strategically, your professional appearance can help you FEEL more powerful in situations where you could use a confidence boost. It can also  help you build credibility and earn respect.

Or not. :)

And gaining respect in a variety of ways is a key part of building personal power.


Here’s 5 quick tips on how you can tailor your professional appearance in a way that builds your personal power.

1. COMFORT: My personal rule of thumb is that clothes should be comfortable.  And there’s no reason why you can’t look sharp, and feel easy, at the same time. Clothes that fit well, that are easy to sit, walk, or stand in – work for you.

Wear outfits that make you feel powerful and easy in your skin. They’ll boost your confidence when you need it most.

2. SKIRTS: If you wear skirts, they should end at or just below the knee. And friends, I know you have nice legs, but wearing hose adds a touch of class that suits a business environment and a serious style. Show off those lovely bare legs for your date Friday night. :)

3. SHOES: It’s hard to stride across the room with purpose and power when you’re wearing 3 inch platforms and you wobble as you walk. It’s equally hard to be treated like an adult if you’re wearing cute strappy sandals that work better at the beach. Comfortable, conservative, closed-toed pumps with reasonable heels enable you to walk quickly and confidently across the board room. And that’s what you want.

4. JEWELRY: Here’s a psychology trick for you.

For reasons that may be obvious, we not-so-unconsciously associate gold with power. Not silver. And I say this as someone who loves all her dangly silver jewelry.

So, IF you are in a situation where you might feel a little intimidated and really need to show your strength, wear just a little simple but strong, gold jewelry. Save the dainty diamonds or cool silver craftsmanship for another time.

5. MAKEUP: I used to tell my daughter that if people are noticing her makeup, instead of her beautiful self, she had on too much make up. :)

Conservative, understated but well-done makeup should be part of your strategy, so if you’ve never had a professional consultation, get one. They’ll do that for you for free at any department store make up counter.

And although I am terrible about this myself – try to remember your lipstick!

I say all of this as someone who is anything BUT a fashion queen. You all know that. Much like the fellow I found in my waiting room, I’d rather be in jeans and a pair of hiking boots too.

But if we want to hold our power in situations where it matters most, how we dress is just as important as how we speak or what we say.

Dress the way you want to be seen – as someone who is professional and credible, someone who is serious. Someone worth listening to.

Because it’s all about personal power. And you need that to get things done.

Photo Credit: Bureau of IIP on Flickr

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