How Teams Dress for Success

Last Updated Dec 21, 2009 5:34 PM EST

When Peter Orszag, President Obama's Director of the Office of Management and Budget, walked into the Oval Office on a sunny day last January, he might have realized that he had a big decision to make: Coat on or off?

President Obama, Peter Orszag, Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers
(White House)
As we can see in the photo at right, he went "coat off" and draped it over his left knee. Orszag is an economist's economist: he's got the training, he's got the neatly parted hair, he's got the four eyes, and he's got natural vanilla flavoring (kind of like me). As such, he might have made a cost-benefit calculation based on optimal brain acuity and meeting performance relative to body temperature and sweat factor. (This classical economic approach might be the reason that chilly Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and polar Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary, were becoated. No danger of cerebral overheating there.) But I'm guessing that Orszag didn't think very much about it at all. He saw his boss in shirt sleeves and, next thing he knew, his coat was off. If this is so, then it's an example that physical proximity leads to imitation, and closeness to similarity. That Orszag was in sync with his boss's coatlessness may seem like a trivial matter, given the weightiness of Oval Office conversations. But some intriguing studies suggest that it's actually a very good sign for the future working effectiveness of Orszag and his boss.

Apple Next to the Tree

Tim Cook and Steve Jobs
(Associated Press)

Consider Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. Recently, Cook has been Jobs' second-in-command, filling the role of COO and running Apple during Jobs' leaves of absence. From the looks of the picture at right, taken at a press conference last year, Cook could also stand in as a body double for his boss, should the need ever arise.

We know that "birds of a feather, flock together," so maybe Jobs couldn't help but hire Cook away from Compaq because it was like looking in a mirror. Or perhaps Cook is strategically "managing up" by imitating the boss. Maybe his garb is merely a black cloth cape clutched during an obsequious bow to power, and a waving denim flag to signal to the rest of company that he's in good with the big apple. In either case, isn't this kind of trivial? The emperors may be wearing the same clothes, but the idea of proximity causing similarity is still an empty suit. It's all surface, no depth.

And yet, there's some interconnection in these two pictures, a resonance in body language, facial expressions, and even attitude. Of course simply framing these people together in a single photograph causes us the viewers to search for similarities. The same type of search may happen when we are not observers but participants who are physically framed together by office walls, conference rooms, and task-force assignments. This search for likeness is one factor that makes the famous proverb's converse equally true: birds that flock, feather together.

Grandma and Grandpa Do It

There is solid scientific evidence supporting this -- and demonstrating that it's not limited to just "feathers." In one of my favorite experiments of all time, a group of psychologists led by Robert Zajonc obtained photos of a number of couples from the year of their weddings and the year of their 25th anniversaries. Observers were presented with randomized arrays consisting of a single target photo and five age-appropriate potential mates, one of whom was the true spouse. Participants could match the young spouses at a rate no better than chance, but they did significantly better with the autumnal photos reflecting a quarter-century of living together. In a follow-up survey of the couples, their rate of resemblance was correlated with their self-reports of happiness and similarity of attitudes. In other words, if you ever thought your grandma and grandpa were starting to look more alike over time, you were right—and the more they looked alike, the happier they were and the more they thought alike.

What It Means at Work

If you'll grant me that indeed, birds that flock, feather together, how can the savvy manager put this axiom to use? Here are a few principles to keep in mind:

Be aware of opportunities and dangers. The power of physical co-presence is the reason we call on customers, set space aside for conference rooms, meet over lunch, and bring people into the office. Even so, we tend to underestimate and ignore the effects of proximity and similar feathering. The unaware manager may never question whether the trust he places in a key subordinate is due to the person's performance or to the fact that he or she is always in their office ("well, of course, I'm fun to be around"), dressed nicely ("huh…I wore something just like that yesterday"), with well grounded opinions ("right in agreement with mine"), and similar sensibilities ("s/he thinks my puns are as pfunny as I do!"). But "feathering" becomes an opportunity if you know to look for the signs. You'll get your own read on how well your team is harmonized with you and, therefore, how much direct managing they're likely to need.

Prep the ground early. Suppose you're in charge of a key cross-functional task force that you're hoping to bring together into a close-knit, efficient, smooth-running, similar-thinking team. You'll get the most out of the proximity principle if you seed it from the start: reassign desks to the same bull pen, require all members to attend every meeting, deny breakaways and unnecessary breakouts, and aggressively weed out early strife.

Don't overdo it.You can't be obvious about the process, because you want your target to remain unconscious. If Orszag shows up to every meeting with the same color tie and shirt as Obama, if he crosses and uncrosses his legs just as Obama does, if he suddenly takes up basketball and starts showing up at the White House gym in a University of Chicago T-shirt, then he becomes a stalker or, even worse, Andy Bernard.

Monitor for uniformity. If attitudes, opinions, and behaviors in the relationship or team converge, then differences are lost. On the one hand, this is what you want because it yields cooperation and efficiency. On the other hand, too much convergence can lead to group think, over-optimistic estimates, and extreme risk taking. So be sure you bring in outside perspective from time to time.

Escape the pod as needed. No doubt you've encountered the phenomenon of mediating a debate in which when you're with the first side you totally believe what they're saying, and when you're with the other side you also feel aligned with them and in full agreement. In this case, and in others where closeness and similarity are having ill effects on you, get away and find some distance and solitude. "Flying solo" might help restore clarity to the situation and create decisiveness.

Have you seen this phenomenon in effect where you work—of colleagues starting to dress and even look like each other? Better yet, do you have images of colleagues who've grown "feathered" together?

David Sally is a Visiting Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where he teaches negotiations. He is a behavioral economist and writer with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.