Image 3!

Third in a series where we take a more in-depth critical look at Edison's visual presence.

Gordon Gee's bowtie and blue-shoes research.

In our last installment in this series, I previewed this one by asking "how does Gordon Gee get away with that bowtie?" Fortuitously, the Chronicle of Higher Education followed up just a couple of weeks later with an article about several higher-ed presidents who, like Gee of OSU, regularly wear the Mister-Peepers-style accessory. Regrettably, the Chronicle engaged in no critical analysis--it merely quoted the presidents' opinions. Also regrettably, Ken Yowell wasn't included.

The question remains: if a four-in-hand tie with diagonal stripes in conservative colors is the most successful style, according to good research, then why would anyone in an authoritative management position choose to wear anything else? Doesn't a bow tie constitute an admission that image isn't all that important?

The question has broader implications. If professional attire is crucial to our effectiveness as a college, then how much damage is done by "Casual Friday" or "Summer Attire" or "Dress Up for Hallowe'en" or "Blue Jeans for Charity"--all of which have been officially-sanctioned abandonments of Edison's dress codes.

To answer the question, we need to look at how that good research is conducted.

Blue Shoes Research

That's what one of my graduate professors called the type of research that image consultants rely on; John T. Molloy claimed to have conducted thousands of such projects. Here's how it's done.

First, you get stimuli--those are things you're going to show to participants in the study. They can be photographs, videos, audiorecordings--Molloy sometimes used himself. Then you change key elements in the stimuli--for instance, you might retouch the photos of a businessman so that you have some copies that show him in a brown suit, others in a gray one, still others in navy, black, green, turquoise. Then you show sets of the pictures to management executives and ask them "based only on these pictures, which of these people would you hire/promote?"

Molloy thought that people who would make such decisions based on appearance were foolish--but, he noted, all of the execs had no trouble doing so. And when the data was sorted out, blue and gray suits got hired and promoted far more often than any other color (except in Chicago, where brown also did well).

This sort of research seems reasonable and scientific, and back before 1960 studies like these were the basis of most academic research in persuasion. But this research misses the mark in one important way. Human beings are complex, and reducing the quality of their interactions to one trait is not valid. That was proven in 1964, when William McGuire did a meta-analysis of many persuasion studies and demonstrated interaction effects. In plainer language, a gray suit might be the best thing if all other things are equal--but all the other things aren't equal, and sometimes the pink suit is better.

Interaction Effects and Idiosyncrasy Credits

No reasonable person can prescribe a strict dress code that works.

First, the interaction effects mean that sometimes, wearing "the uniform" is a bad idea. U.S. Presidential campaigns are instructive: "the uniform" (recently) is a tailored two-piece business suit in navy, white shirt, and red or blue necktie. In the most recent election, both major candidates often appeared coatless and tieless, and Obama frequently rolled up his sleeves. On other occasions, both adopted polo shirts. Their image consultants knew that there are times when the dress-for-success look is unsuccessful.

Second, within any organization, there are some individuals (more often, those of high status due to job importance or seniority) who can get away with breaking some of the unwritten rules. We say that these individuals have "idiosyncrasy credits"; they get to be different from everyone else without damaging their effectiveness.

Third and finally, people are not alike. Some will need to adjust their attire to compensate for individual differences, ranging from quirks of personal appearance to qualifying disabilities. We shouldn't forget that rigid dress codes run counter to the acceptance of diversity.

So Gordon Gee gets away with that bow tie because (a) he has a general Mr. Peepers sort of look and the bow tie doesn't seem out of place (b) his long tenure in higher education administration affords him a good number of idiosyncrasy credits (c) he may find it strategically to his advantage to disarm others by having a less-then-corporate appearance (d) all of the above.

Next: clothes don't make the college--what are the other ways in which Edison creates an image?

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