When it comes to being taken seriously at work, there are many ways to get tripped up, especially when it comes to style. Personal style can play a big role in how you are perceived. Shelley Prevost, chief executive officer and co-founder at Torch, says individuality is important, but it’s also important to convey professionalism with your physical appearance.
“In my experience, if I want to be taken seriously, I need to look the part—whatever part that might be. As a business executive—and as a psychologist who understands the impact of subconscious hunches we make upon first impressions—I use personal style to convey professionalism and confidence,” Prevost says. “Others might choose to convey something else, and their personal style should reflect that. I think it’s more important to be aligned between personal brand, personal style, value system, and work culture. All of these things matter.”
Personal style can vary and should be embraced, but Prevost cautions that you should take care to make sure your style fits with the culture of your workplace. “There’s a fine line between self-expression and distraction. Most of us intuitively can pick up on what the work culture ascribes to by simply looking around. And, of course, certain jobs have certain requirements,” Prevost says, adding that she used to have a nose ring that she took out during the work week. “I believe strongly in self-expression, but I also believe strongly in professionalism. Some types of individuality may be better suited for the weekends.”
Talk the Talk
Some of the greatest impact you have at work will come through the words you say and how you say them. Donde Plowman, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says it’s important to be thoughtful and intentional when it comes to professional presence, something she says she started to think seriously about when she became dean of the college of business at the University of Nebraska.
“One of the things I saw immediately was once you’re the leader, people ascribe motivations and opinions to what you do in a way I hadn’t thought about before,” Plowman says. You can’t say things casually, because others will take note. You have to mean what you say, and realize that others are looking for you to set a tone. “When you get into a leadership role, it is a role. You have to be intentional and clear when you speak. Try to be more aware of what you project,” Plowman says.
Your energy can also be a huge factor in what sets you apart in everyday work life and in leadership roles, Plowman says. As dean, she says many people would tell her how much they loved her energy.
“I really began to think about how one’s energy is a powerful resource. And, it’s free—I didn’t have to ask anyone for it,” Plowman says. “You’re in control of it. And we choose how we react to things. We choose our feelings, and I came to see that when I bring my full energy to the challenges and the tasks and opportunities in front of me, a lot of things can happen that are unexpected.”
Even with energy, to command presence in the workplace, you have to make sure you are heard and noticed. Plowman says she often sees young women at the college level who are timid and quiet. They need help when it comes to commanding a presence in a room. This can include speaking with a strong voice and using words that are powerful. “It’s about using muscular language. You have to stop saying things that diminish people’s opinions of you,” Plowman says.
Instead of saying things like “I think,” “how about,” or “maybe we should,” Plowman suggests more assertive language choices like, “I strongly suggest we move in this direction,” or, “Here is my plan.”
“Be more assertive in your confidence and opinions. Stand tall, exude confidence, and people will see you as more confident,” Plowman says. “Other people won’t see you as competent if you do things that get in the way of that. You can still achieve a lot and not be noticed.”
Women tend to get in the way of themselves, she adds, but they need to be aware that they are competent, have important skills to contribute, and push themselves to be as effective in commanding attention and presence as their male counterparts.
Prevost agrees that muscular language can be helpful; however, there might be a time and place for this type of language, too. “The underlying suggestion of muscular language is good—speak confidently and clearly. But there also has to be room for language that smooths the edges,” Prevost says. “If it’s authentic for someone to use muscular language, they should use it. If it’s authentic for someone to use what I might characterize as more relational language, then they should use that. We need both types in our communication.”
Prevost suggests women should be authentic, but they should embrace their unique styles and not necessarily try to match that of their counterparts. “Women are uniquely qualified to be great listeners, use empathy in tangible ways, rely on collaboration and diverse opinions for decision making, and look for ways to achieve integration in life and work—for themselves and their teams,” Prevost says. “We tend to over-masculinize our communication and personal style to ‘fit in’ to the culture of men around us, and I think this is dangerous. It results in a hyper-driven workplace, which leads to burnout, less creativity, and less engaged employees.”
The lesson here is to establish a style that projects confidence and competence, and find a “voice” that works for you.
The Value of Authenticity
Deb Miller, chief experience officer at Comprehensive Pain Specialists and partner and chief experience officer at EvidenceCare, says there are many tips for personal and professional style at work, she emphasizes one thing over all: “I’m a big fan of authenticity. A lot of what I recommend is someone understanding who they are and being true to who they are,” Miller says.
Women can find themselves as the only woman in the room during meetings, especially at a higher level. “You can get caught up in that or embrace the fact that, as a woman, you bring a unique perspective and own it,” Miller says. “The only person holding you back is you. Sometimes, we bring assumptions to the table that aren’t reality.”
Many women are told or assume that they need to act like a man to be taken seriously in business, but Miller says that can sometimes make your actions seem forced or fake. “We make assumptions and then react to assumptions, and I think we have to clear our heads. Sometimes women have a tendency to act like guys and try to present a brand other than what really feels right to them,” she adds.
The key is finding a place where you fit and are valued for who you are. Realize you are bringing value to the table and are in control of your own situation, Miller says. Still, there are some elements that many women bring to work that they may want to monitor, such as emotion. “Women bringing emotion and passion to work is critical, but making decisions based on emotions is a mistake,” Miller says. “Emotions need to be appropriate in the workplace. They can’t leverage how we behave.”
Beyond being authentic, women need to realize that their contributions go beyond gender. The sooner women stop thinking of themselves of “women leaders” and start thinking of themselves as just leaders, the better. “We are both leaders and females—we are not female leaders,” Miller says. “If we focus on ourselves as leaders, we are leaders separate from our gender. We need to start with saying ‘my qualities,’ not saying my qualities as a woman.”
Set goals for yourself and craft your journey to reach those, Miller suggests. “Don’t be afraid to break through boundaries or ignore the boundaries and don’t let them bond you,” Miller says. “Leadership is helping to define and shape instead of responding to societal norms for either a gender or an age. Style starts inward. You might wrap a gift for somebody, but once you rip off that paper, it’s what inside that matters. Every single brand has to start with authenticity.”
Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a healthcare writer from Cleveland.