Podcast: How Should You Present Yourself at Work?
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Jan 17, 2024

Podcast: How Should You Present Yourself at Work?

Be yourself! No, not like that. On this episode of The Insightful Leader, we help you navigate the competing advice about how much to share and hold back.

Based on the research and insights of

Ellen Taaffe

Derek D. Rucker

Listening: How Should You Present Yourself at Work?
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As she was coming up, Ellen Taaffe’s boss told her that wearing red was the wrong way to stand out. Taaffe, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, felt the advice was veiled: she was being asked to conform to a masculine convention. Her decision to rebuff his advice wasn’t made lightly.

“It was just this feeling of, I don’t know what his reaction is, but this is who I am. This actually gives me more confidence and energy, and if you don’t like that, maybe this is not for me,” Taaffe said.

She wore red, and it worked out. But things don’t always pan out for people making decisions around how to show up for work. It can mean erasing who you are, as is the case for many women, minorities, and people who identify as something other than the mainstream.

On this episode of The Insightful Leader: When should you break the mold and when should you conform? Plus, how do we really see people who don luxury duds? Marketing Professor Derek Rucker tells us what the science says.

Podcast Transcript

Laura PAVIN: Early in her career, Ellen Taaffe got some advice she didn’t like. Taaffe likes to wear bright colors, like red blazers.

Ellen TAAFFE: I was in a sales organization, and my boss told me that wearing red was the wrong way to stand out—that all of us from our region ought to wear a navy jacket, a navy blazer.

PAVIN: Taaffe was the only woman at her level in her division. And she felt like she was being asked to conform to a masculine convention.

TAAFFE: It felt like, wow, I’m being told to wear a uniform.

PAVIN: I’m Laura Pavin and today we’re going to look at how we present ourselves in the workplace. And it actually goes beyond how we dress or our fashion sense, though we’ll certainly talk about that. It’s also very much about all of the other things that make us who we are, like our personality or our cultural background, and all of the thorny questions professionals agonize over when deciding how much of that they want to show.

We’ll talk about that. And then, later, we’ll turn to what the science says about what people see when they look at us. Do they really judge us differently depending on things like … what clothes we wear?

But first, let’s get back to Ellen Taaffe.

She thinks about the question of how to present ourselves a lot. In her twenty-five-year career, she was a Brand Management executive at PepsiCo, Whirlpool, and Royal Caribbean, among others, and is now a clinical associate professor at Kellogg. Her new book, The Mirrored Door, is about how high-achieving women can overcome internal and external gendered expectations at work.

Before all of Taaffe’s success, back when she was on that sales team, and her boss asked her not to wear red, she was like, “oof.” She didn’t want to wear black or navy—it didn’t suit her. So finally, she decided to go her own way.

PAVIN: (to Taaffe) Tell me about what it was like to be like, “today, it’s going to be red.” What kind of math were you doing?

TAAFFE: I think it definitely was a time when I was gathering my courage. To, a little bit, go against what my boss had said. I mean, he’d said to me, “that is the wrong way to stand out.” But I can remember one particular meeting when I did lay out my clothes the night before. It was just this feeling of, I don’t know what his reaction is, but this is who I am. This actually gives me more confidence and energy, and if you don’t like that, maybe this is not for me.

PAVIN: Taaffe’s boss did make a comment about her red outfit. But let it go at that. She suspects he might have respected her independence. And she thinks that her assertion of a bolder fashion sense was a good thing for the company.

TAAFFE: It just made room for … we don’t all have the same style. So I think it was helpful.

PAVIN: This decision on how to dress is just one of many that professionals have to make every day that have nothing to do with our jobs. These are decisions about how we want to be seen, or not seen, by our bosses and coworkers and clients.

Another common one is how much of our personal lives to reveal. Here’s a story from early in Taaffe’s career: She was at the office, and she got flowers from her then-boyfriend. Her boss—the same one who told her to avoid wearing red—he noticed.

TAAFFE: My boss came in and said, “you live so close, I think you should take those home.” Because it would signal that, you know, I’m close to getting engaged, and it might prevent me from getting the next district-manager job.

PAVIN: This was in the 80s, when there weren’t that many women in sales management jobs.

TAAFFE: There was an assumption that getting married would lead to limitations on your career. And so for the sake of my career, and for me getting that promotion, my boss told me how it would be interpreted. And I took the flowers home.

[music]

PAVIN: From the colors she wore to the things that signaled her relationship status—these were the things Taaffe actually had to weigh when she literally showed up for work. Luckily, this mostly sounds foreign to many of us today because times and norms have changed. But things aren’t perfect. There are other molds that people feel pressure to fit.

Tricia Montalvo Timm is a friend of Taaffe’s and a successful businesswoman in her own right. She thinks and writes a lot about identity in the workplace.

She grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents were immigrants from Ecuador and El Salvador. And she got her first advice on how to present herself very early in her career, back when she was a child actor.

Tricia MONTALVO TIMM: So the auditions I was getting were for, you know, Spanish-speaking commercials or the Spanish-speaking kid on the playground.

PAVIN: Her agent pulled her aside for some advice on how to get considered for more roles.

MONTALVO TIMM: She said the problem is that they see my last name, Montalvo, and say, “ooh, she’s ethnic,” and they pass. So they changed it to McClain. And I became “Patricia McClain”. My dad, when I came home, was like, “why are you changing your name? You’re ashamed of our name?” Because it’s his name, right? And I was like, “I don’t know. Are we ashamed? I don’t know. Maybe we are ashamed. Maybe it isn’t okay.” And so that happened at a super young age. And so I think, you know, these messages that come in that say you’re not part of mainstream, you’re not American, you’re not like … you are lesser-than somehow, it gets internalized. You start believing these messages, it starts impacting you, and it’s very formative.

[music]

PAVIN: Montalvo Timm worked hard, got a law degree, and worked in securities law in Silicon valley, representing tech companies, big and small.

She began her career years later than Taaffe, so some of the expectations on women had loosened. But she was careful about revealing her Latina identity.

MONTALVO TIMM: I wore the black suit with the pumps. I learned to play golf, because that’s what everybody did. I bought golf clubs, you know—that’s what the social outing was. Even cuisine: I grew up with arroz con pollo and tamales and I had to learn how to eat, you know, shrimp and lobster.

PAVIN: Like Taaffe, she was also careful about sharing too many details about her personal life. When she had a baby, she avoided talking about challenges like whether they would take the bottle, or how much they would sleep. And like Taaffe, she wished she could present more of herself without worrying about how she would be perceived.

PAVIN: (to Montalvo Timm) What in your life made you think about this, in a deep way, about embracing your true self more at work?

MONTALVO TIMM: You know, it took a while. I mean, these strategies of adapting and modifying and fitting in is a strategy I used for two decades. And I’m a first-generation Latina—I didn’t see anybody that looked like me in leadership, I didn’t have any role models, I didn’t have any network, I didn’t know what to, you know, how am I supposed to dress? What am I? Should I wear my hoop earrings or not? Is that going to be a problem? And so that journey took me a couple of years, to really slowly reveal more and more about myself, first in safe places, and then in wider circles.

[music]

PAVIN: Montalvo Timm says that it wasn’t like she flipped some switch and suddenly showed up at work transformed, but that, instead, she just became more comfortable talking about her childhood, about the Ecuadorian and Salvadorian cultures that were part of her heritage, about the food she ate at home. And she found on the whole, those parts of her were welcomed at work. And other people of color, or immigrants, and especially Latina women expressed gratitude and excitement she had revealed these aspects of her identity.

[Music]

PAVIN: There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the importance of being able to bring our whole selves to work. And there are a lot of good reasons for this, particularly when it comes to creating a workplace that feels inclusive to people who haven’t always been included.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, how we show up at work could affect how we are treated. One recent study found that freelancers who “looked the part” were more likely to be hired by clients on freelancer.com. For instance, having an “artsy” look in your profile picture helped you get a design job—even though it didn’t make you any better at doing that job.

And sometimes, things you think will give you an edge play out differently.

Derek Rucker is a professor of Marketing at Kellogg.

Derek RUCKER: (to Pavin) Was I supposed to dress up or anything?

PAVIN: No!

RUCKER: Great!

PAVIN: And, as you just heard, he’s interested in how people present themselves, in this case, himself. Rucker has done a lot of research into luxury brands: clothing and accessories by Gucci, Dior, or Prada, and the like, and how wearing those brands affects how people perceive you.

PAVIN: Rucker says there is a whole body of research that points to the benefits of wearing luxury brands.

RUCKER: There was a study done where they showed that if a person approached you, and they either wore like a nice polo shirt, but no brand, or a polo shirt with a little Lacoste logo, that’s the little alligator—those tend to be very expensive, by the way—but you are more likely to give them your time to complete a survey.

PAVIN: Rucker says there are similar studies that show people defer to or comply with people wearing luxury brands. They make an assumption about status. But he and fellow researcher Christopher Cannon wanted to see if there was a downside to a luxury look, particularly in situations where luxury didn’t send the right message.

Rucker and Cannon recruited participants, and gave them a general survey, sort of a “getting to know you” questionnaire.

RUCKER: We asked them questions on the survey, like, “What are some of your favorite brands?”

PAVIN: So that gets people thinking about brands: what they like, what they think about luxury brands, in particular. Then the participants are told they’ll be participating in a mock hiring scenario. There were two jobs to fill: a corporate publicist and a human-resources coordinator.

RUCKER: When we described the jobs to them, we also talked about traits, like, “it’d be important to have status,” “it would be important to be warm.” So we picked jobs and described them in a way that would fit with more of a status versus a warmth approach.

PAVIN: The corporate-publicist role was associated with status, while the HR-coordinator role was associated with warmth.

Then participants got what they were told were two candidates’ responses to the same questionnaire that they’d just filled out themselves. One of the candidates mentioned a lot of luxury brands in their questionnaire, while the other didn’t mention any. Based on these answers, which candidate would they hire for which job?

RUCKER: And here’s what we find: If you’re trying to hire a “corporate publicist,” you pick the person who wore luxury that is like, “oh, you know, corporate publicist—you’ve got to be in the know, you’ve got to have status, I’m going to pick you.” But if I change the task and you’re going to hire a human-resource coordinator, they’re like “that luxury looks pretty showy, I’m not going to hire you, I’m going to hire the other.”

PAVIN: That’s right: That Prada bag is really great if you are trying to convey status. But if you need to convey warmth at work, it might not be the best choice.

Why is this?

RUCKER: When people see luxury, they infer—which could be entirely incorrect—“ah, the person has an ulterior motive. They’re trying to somehow, like, get one over on me.” Which, by the way, there are so many reasons to consume luxury that could have nothing to do with ulterior motives at all. There’s some people who are kind of a little shy about showing it. They like brands, but they don’t want to make a big deal out of it.

PAVIN: (to Rucker) Yeah, unless you’re like, interviewing to be some role at a nonprofit that helps, you know, the underprivileged. I feel like wearing a big Gucci belt would be kind of weird.

RUCKER: Yeah. (laughs) Even if the people don’t intend it, people could judge you a particular way. Right? So I think I, at least as a consumer, you want to be aware of that. And maybe I might do some things to kind of overcome it. You could imagine for example, I have a friend who loves watches. Just, that’s one of their things, right? Well, wearing a Rolex is a pretty strong statement. And you can imagine, in certain environments, maybe you wouldn’t lead with that.

[music]

PAVIN: Luxury and nonluxury aside, this general idea—that people might be judging you for a fashion choice you make, maybe unconsciously—is why decisions about how you present yourself are actually worth thinking through.

RUCKER: Yeah, I guess if you said, “what do you take away from your own research?” Yeah, I would say I am a bit more mindful. I think of, “what am I gonna wear today?” Because I realized there may be unintended signals that I send. And so I don’t obsess about it to the point where it’s like, let me think about every single item every single day. I think, hopefully, personality overcomes a lot of that. But if I’m meeting new people, I think a little more about what I will wear and how I present myself.

PAVIN: And Rucker says he and other researchers are now interested in a question that’s very relevant to bringing what Ellen Taaffe calls “your authentic self” into the workplace.

RUCKER: You know, we’re doing some work right now, where we’re looking at—this relates to your question—when people nonconform. When they exhibit nonconforming behavior. How do you respond to them?

PAVIN: In other words, when somebody like Ellen Taaffe chooses to wear a red blazer, instead of navy or black like everybody else, how are they perceived?

RUCKER: And one of the potential interesting elements of this ongoing research is we find evidence that, at least in some cases, you give more thought to their merits. So what that means is, if I’m a nonconformist, but I really have the skills, you’re even more likely to pick up on the skills.

PAVIN: But if you don’t have the skills, or you haven’t demonstrated them, then not conforming could draw unwanted attention.

TAAFFE: Yeah, I think that’s … I think that’s true.

PAVIN: Ellen Taaffe, again.

TAAFFE: You know, I would say, in particular, when I have been newer in a situation, whether that’s a boardroom, or when I think back to the red jacket question, the further I got into my career in that organization, the more likely I was to wear red. And [the more likely I was] to be more relaxed in the boardroom.

PAVIN: Tricia Montalvo Timm agrees that she’s seen this phenomenon, too. And it can suggest that maybe people from marginalized groups might want to be careful at first, when they’re new to an organization.

MONTALVO TIMM: I think, especially if you’re a person of color, and if you come in not fitting the mold, there’s unfortunately unconscious bias that exists in the workplace. And so there, that’s an additional hurdle that you have to overcome. And you have a decision to make. I’m not saying don’t go there and, you know, hide who you are, you know. There are many reasons someone might decide, “look, if I stay here another year, I’m gonna get the next role. I’m, you know, in the middle of a transition with my husband’s [job].” Like, there’s so many reasons that you may not be able to leave that environment, that situation you’re in.

PAVIN: And so many reasons you might not want to risk standing out. At least not at first. Not until you’ve demonstrated you are good at your job. After that, the evidence seems to indicate, not only might you be safe, you might actually gain respect and positive attention for sharing more of your identity, your taste, and your personality at work.

PAVIN: Tricia Montalvo Timm and Ellen Taaffe both mentor people who are dealing with this question: “How much of my identity do I share at work?” And Taaffe says this is where your network can be helpful.

TAAFFE: Do you have a connection into the company that you’re looking for? Or can you get an introduction to a past employee or a current employee to understand how safe is it to be our real selves in this culture? And is the mold expanding? Breaking? Or is it pretty rigid?

[music]

PAVIN: Both Taaffe and Montalvo Timm use phrases like “real selves” or “full selves” or “authentic self.” And thinking back on some of my own working experiences, I’ve actually found that I wish some people I’ve worked with had, well, mitigated parts of their personality that might have been distracting or rude. Like, does our “full self” really have to include inappropriate humor or chattiness when others are trying to focus? I brought this up with Tricia Montalvo Timm.

PAVIN: (to Montalvo Timm) Showing up as your full self also includes things that might irritate people. Yeah, so I guess like, what are your thoughts on that? Like, should? Like, where—

[Montalvo Timm laughs]

PAVIN: —where should the line be on that?

MONTALVO TIMM: Well, you know, I have a 20-year-old daughter, and I say to her, like, “showing up as your authentic self is not showing up in your, you know, your pajama pants, right?” So as young people, we do need to learn how to communicate with each other effectively and how to be active listeners. So that’s, I would say, more a skillset of like, how do we learn how to be effective team members and leaders so that we can collaborate and bring people together and lead people? And that’s a skill, right? That requires some learning and development over time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wear the hoops or the red coat or the other things that bring you who you are authentically.

[music]

MONTALVO TIMM: I clearly was successful, downplaying my heritage, and being a working mother in the workplace for 20 years, and had I in those environments brought my full self, would I have been as successful? I don’t know the answer to that.

[music]

PAVIN: Everybody who works has to think about how to present themselves in a professional environment. And Tricia Montalvo Timm and Ellen Taaffe’s stories show that those choices can be even harder for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, people who speak with an accent, or others who haven’t been historically well-represented in their industry. It can take courage to let your identity show at work, and sometimes, it might be smart to reign it in a little—at least for a while.

PAVIN: Both Ellen Taaffe and Tricia Montalvo Timm now mentor other people, especially women, who are trying to figure out how to present themselves at work. And both feel like there’s something lost, for the individual, and for the company, when people suppress part of their identity for the sake of conforming.

MONTALVO TIMM: I think by not bringing your authentic self to work, the risk is to yourself and to the organization. Changing who you are, modifying or adapting all the things that we do, eventually, in the short term, works. It’s a strategy. But in the long term, it’s emotionally exhausting. You feel disconnected, you don’t feel seen. And I think there’s a risk to organizations because if you’re not feeling comfortable, and you’re not engaging in your full self, you’re not bringing those diverse perspectives, that voice that we so desperately need in organizations right now. So I think, you know, my work is saying that that’s actually the bigger risk.

PAVIN: Ellen Taaffe’s book is The Mirrored Door: Break Through the Hidden Barrier that Locks Successful Women in Place. She’s a clinical associate professor of Management and Organizations at Kellogg. Patricia Montalvo Timm’s book is Embrace the Power of You: Owning Your Identity at Work. Derek Rucker has written or edited three books, including Advertising Strategy, the Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology, and most recently, The Creative Brief Blueprint. You can read more of his research on Kellogg Insight.

[CREDITS]

PAVIN: This episode of The Insightful Leader was written and co-produced by Jesse Dukes. It was produced and edited by Laura Pavin, Jessica Love, Susie Allen, Fred Schmalz, Maja Kos, and Blake Goble. It was mixed by Andrew Meriwether. Special thanks to Ellen Taaffe, Derek Rucker, and Patricia Montalvo Timm. Want more The Insightful Leader episodes? You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, or our website: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another episode of The Insightful Leader Podcast.

Featured Faculty

Clinical Associate Professor of Management & Organizations; Director of Women's Leadership Programs

Sandy & Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Co-chair of Faculty Research

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