Accessorizing for your next negotiation: should appearance matter?

Looks matter for your next negotiationA Google Alert in this morning’s email directed my attention to an article titled, “Isn’t Your Look Part of Your Negotiation?“, posted on, an online magazine “written for today’s entrepreneurial woman”.

The article emphasizes the importance of preparation to effective negotiation — namely, making the right impression with your appearance:

Here are some tips: mimic their style, put yourself in an attractive light and don’t create distractions. What does mimic their style mean? It doesn’t mean be who you are not, but rather present yourself in such a way that will look good to the other party… Mimic their look means to create a look for yourself that will be most pleasing for them to receive you.

Now here’s my favorite part, which the article offers up with a straight face and not even the faintest whiff of irony:

Negotiations are all about getting the other party to listen to you. Your hair, your clothing and your accessories should all be in tune to the tastes of the other party.

(Emphasis added.)

Huh? My accessories? Are you serious? (Incidentally, as my readers know, negotiations are indeed all about listening, but not “all about getting the other party to listen to you”. It’s in fact a lot about listening to them — vital to the relationship building that successful negotiations depend upon. Plus you’ll learn a great deal and be able to leverage the information you acquire.)

How about emphasizing the importance of a professional appearance? In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes how powerful authority is as a tool of persuasion and how readily we submit to those who wield it, often unable to distinguish between real and apparent authority. He points out that one of the most recognizable emblems of power here in the West is “the well-tailored business suit”, which “can evoke a telling form of deference from total strangers”, as experiments have shown.

Well-tailored suits aside, I confess I am left uneasy by all this talk about a negotiating woman’s appearance. Behind it lurks a whole array of social justice issues uncomfortable to discuss but urgent for us to face — women and aging, youth and beauty, race and skin color, antipathy toward the obese, prejudice against those with disabilities or deformities.

In urging women to “mimic” the look of their bargaining counterpart, how would the author of this article counsel the 60-year-old woman negotiating with her 30-year-old prospective boss? Or a woman of color negotiating in a predominately white workplace? Or a woman wearing a hijab? Or a woman with a face disfigured in a car crash, negotiating with people who are unscarred and whole?

There’s much, much more here than meets the eye.

3 responses to “Accessorizing for your next negotiation: should appearance matter?

  1. As an Ombudsperson, I share a sensitivity to the impact of a first appearance. However, since I work with on a large university campus, the visitors to my office vary widely in age, education, income, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. It would be impossible and disingenuous for me to attempt to mimic the attributes of the individuals with whom I interact. I find it more important to dress in a way that reflects that I am comfortable with myself, neutral in my outlook and serious about my work. My only “accessory” is a trustworthy pen. That being said, I do keep a jacket and tie handy for mediations, presentations and meetings with top administrators.

  2. Hi there, Diane – I had a similar reaction to those links that you did…a certain discomfort, even while acknowledging some of the relevance.

    But my reason for leaving a comment is that your post reminded me of a probate mediation I did a few years ago. One of the parties was a well-dressed, somewhat flamboyant woman who swept in after everyone else had arrived and was seated. So, naturally, all eyes turned to her. Which perhaps was the plan. But even I wasn’t prepared for what was revealed when she removed her mink coat: A bejeweled broach, maybe 5″ in diameter, perched on the front of her suit just below the shoulder. In the shape of a spider. The gasp in the room was audible enough that I think my own gasp wasn’t obvious. The message was clear: Spider woman has arrived.

    Talk about accessorizing to send a message!

  3. Diane Levin

    Whoa. (Good thing it wasn’t a real spider.)

    Great story, Tammy. Thanks for sharing that one.