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Unconscious Bias And The Colours You’re Wearing

Posted by Nicola Fowler on Aug 8, 2019 10:00:00 AM

Unconscious Bias And The Colours You’re Wearing

Did you know that the colours we wear can affect the way we are perceived? Think about Janet from HR who shows up in all black, Sarah from Accounts who always has those pink fluffy earrings, and Tom in Sales who is quite non-descript except for that bright purple, luminous yellow or post-box-red tie he always pops on.

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Janet from HR must be feeling low… every single day. Sarah from Accounts has no sense of workplace-appropriate attire; she’s clueless about how she looks, and probably about how to do her job, too. And Tom from Sales, well – he just wants attention!

As a manager, your team probably abide to a vague form of dress-code but whether it’s jeans and shirt, or suit and tie, every dress code that isn’t “uniform” leaves some room for interpretation. Keep an eye out for team members judging another’s choice of clothing – the colours we choose to wear are more often than not incidental and demonstrate no part of our ability to do our job effectively.

‘Well, obviously!’ you might think. But studies show that colours communicate a lot of information about us… or, rather, people make decisions about us based on whether we’re wearing blue or green!

Colour rules underpin our society – some accepted, some unspoken. Never wear white to another woman’s wedding. Wear nothing but black to a funeral. And on a sunny day – make the most of it and wear every colour you own!

Unfortunately, although colours and clothing styles carry certain connotations within certain cultures, these are often inconsistent and vary depending on who you ask.

Next time you hear, ‘my god, what is he wearing?’ in the workplace, take note. That seemingly throwaway comment betrays an insidious tendency to make judgements based on clothing choices.

Is red a colour of power and courage? Or is it the colour that experts found women to perceive as threatening when worn by another woman? If you pair those black trousers with a red blouse for the Friday meeting, are you telling your colleagues that you’re brave and competent – or are your colleagues silently resenting you because you’re wearing red and, therefore, secretly trying to get your (male) boss’s attention?

Why do so many women associate the colour red with sexuality? Is it because we have been directly told that red is a sexual colour – or is this association simply the result of years of exposure to the same connotations and denotations?

Does a colour communicate the way we are feeling – or does it only communicate the way we were feeling at the time that we chose to wear it? Moods change by the moment, so if we assume that our choices of colour define how we feel, we then have to assume that our mood is the same from dawn to dusk, never-changing… until the next day, that is, when we are apparently in a totally different mood!

Unconscious bias can leak out in many forms. Colour psychology is an area of assumption, in itself; we choose black when we’re trying to slim down; we choose yellow when we’re feeling happy; we choose grey when we’re lacking confidence.

If you work in a world of greys and blacks, a red handbag clearly means you’re trying to assert your individuality in any way you can! If you’ve shown up to work in a pink blouse in a sea of white you must be trying to flaunt your femininity, no matter how subtle a shade of pink you’ve picked! And if you’ve chosen a khaki green skirt this Friday? Well, whip out the granola bars and tie-dye headbands, you hippy - what are you even doing in a sleek, corporate office?!

In the world of colour psychology, no one chooses items of clothing based on what they have to hand, what fit last week but doesn’t quite fit today, what goes with what, or what event we’re wearing the item to. According to colour psychology, every piece of clothing on our body is our subconscious voice, our suppressed thoughts and intentions, our feelings and moods.

If we dress according to how we feel and nothing more, do our clothing choices simply reflect our state of mind and, in doing so, tell others how to treat us?

When we recognise that clothing colour can affect the way we are perceived, is the onus on us to abandon our chosen colours and settle for our least favourites just to appease others – or is the responsibility solely with the person making the assumption about us purely based on the colour of the jacket we chose that day?

As with all topics under the umbrella of unconscious bias, nothing can change until the problem is raised.

Is wearing pale pink a sign of immaturity? And does wearing black demonstrate that you are serious?

In the same way that you wouldn’t excuse an employee for racist remarks based on what they have learned and assimilated over the years, it is imperative that you do not allow your team to judge each other based on clothing choices. It’s well known that many members of society will make judgements on our character based on the pattern (e.g. leopard print) or the fabric (e.g. leather) that we’ve chosen to wear. Rarely do we actively focus on colour and the biases that we have across the colour spectrum!

If colour is simply a reflection of different waves of light, so too are our choices of colour.

Next time one of your team comes in sporting a sunshine yellow – or as others may say ‘daring’ – dress, call attention to it… and compliment it for what it is. Allow other members of your team to hear you addressing clothing colour on a surface level, with zero implication or undertone. Many of our automatic responses are learned from those around us, so until we set out to rehaul our team’s way of thinking, we need to lead by example in the meantime.

Make it clear that you, as the manager, never judge a colleague based on what they are wearing. You observe their work itself; the colours that come with it are simply decoration!

At Maze Training, we deliver training on Unconscious Bias and help leaders to educate their teams on their biases and the way their behaviour alters due to cues that they may not have consciously realised. Ending colour stigma is one part of the thousand-piece jigsaw that is Unconscious Bias. Call us today to find out more.

Image source: Unsplash

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