• Andrew Telburn

5 Years On - Do You Remember That Dress (#TheDress)? What it can teach us in business now?

What does it say about developing your company?

I know it’s five years old now (to the day!), but plenty of people were left scratching their heads when the world’s big run-in #TheDress occurred. Viral sensations are nothing new, but a global debate over the colour of a garment? Major publications weighing in by the dozen? The dress itself making appearances on major talk shows? Really? Is there anything to learn about ourselves from it?

Not long after #TheDress went viral, several media outlets began publishing scientific explanations as to why people perceived the colours differently. It involved the way our eyes and brains work together to process light, and the problem of distinguishing illuminants (light sources) from the actual colour of things being illuminated.

This is all interesting territory—but perhaps the colours themselves are not the real reason why #TheDress took the internet by storm.

Maybe what really interested people were the questions of perception that came to light. Questions of why people defend their own perceptions against others. Questions of what needs to happen in order for perceptions to change. All very current issues and being hotly debated.

Instead of lamenting the superficiality of the phenomenon that is #TheDress (it was a Friday after all—notoriously casual on the news front), let’s look at what this garment and its elusive true colours can tell us about something that matters: Business.

There are, in fact, many facets of business where questions of perception are vitally important. Executive coaching, recruitment, interviewing, outplacement services—in all of these areas, #TheDress is more than a passing fad. It’s part of the daily news cycle.

Let’s start with executives. One challenge many of our leaders face is becoming limited by the perceptual patterns that helped them succeed in the first place. The dress was definitely white and gold, and there is no room for argument. Or the dress was obviously black and blue, and nobody should have had any reason to think otherwise.

In many cases, coaching and mentoring has empowered executives to see their own perceptual patterns, and discover how those patterns have resulted in missed opportunities. Rather than always taking the dress at face value, or insisting that tricks of lighting are at work, they become free to challenge their own perceptions and embrace change on a personal level. Improved problem-solving almost always results, as does a more adaptive and creative organisational culture.

When recruitment initiatives are on the table, the #the dress challenge is equally if not more relevant. Getting down to the bare bones of what really makes a good match, and finding a candidate that represents long-term mutual benefit, involves a detailed set of considerations. It involves creativity and questioning. Companies which don’t actively question their methods of attracting recruits (social media, blogging, accessing hidden business networks), and look for more dynamic ways to assess a candidate’s potential (creative interviewing, revealing the true nature of a candidate’s career goals), are less likely to maximise results.

Interviewing is another great example. Most interviewers make their first decision about a candidate in the first thirty seconds. This is problematic, since the only available data is superficial: The candidate’s manner of dress, eye contact, speech and even smell (there is some interesting Japanese research that shows the impact of odour on hiring decisions!).

A second, more impactful decision is usually made by the ten-minute mark. The problem here is nerves. The candidate often makes nervous mistakes during the first ten minutes—and since assessors are more deeply impacted by negative information than positive (by a ratio of roughly 10:1), such mistakes are costly.

It’s fairly obvious that an assessment process based on rapid, fixed perceptions is unfair to the candidate. But it’s also unfair to the company. Both sides are looking for an accurate assessment, and neither get it. Fortunately, looking carefully at #TheDress can help interviewers and candidates avoid this scenario.

First off, candidates should understand the importance of perception while preparing for the interview. One interviewer might see “the dress” as white, and mark the candidate up, while another might see the same colour and be negatively impacted. The trick is to do plenty of research and “due diligence” ahead of time. This way, candidates can present themselves in a way that is flexible, and make themselves appealing to a number of different assessors or “perceptions.”

For their part, assessors and interviewers should hold their judgements in check until they have sufficient hard data on which to base a decision. In our trainings, we always say that one piece of data means nothing, while two pieces of matching data might be a coincidence. Three pieces of matching data is the basis of a pattern, and only patterns can really indicate how a candidate will work, react and contribute in the future. Perception is every person’s right and reality, and cannot be done away with. People can, however, achieve more balanced perceptions by seeking hard data to underpin the conclusion being formed.

Let’s move on to career transition and outplacement. We’ve been looking at this particular dress the same way, and perceiving the same drab colours, for far too long. Luckily, many companies are realising the value of more comprehensive, custom-tailored outplacement services—not only for the outplaced employee, but for the company’s own reputation and future recruitment efforts.

Likewise, employees are seeing more potential in outplacement, as difficult as the situation may be. They’re beginning to understand how taking things apart is an opportunity to put them back together in a new way—one that works even better for their professional careers. This idea is substantiated by the fact that many outplaced employees end up happier in their new, and often better, roles.

So there you have it: An unexpected media firestorm, some five years ago now, over the colour of a dress can still spark a meaningful conversation after all. It can lead us to explore the power of perception in almost any area of life, including business.

The difference is, the whole world ultimately discovered the true colour of #TheDress, while the true colours of business will never be completely clear. Although our eyes may perceive the correct colours today, things could be different tomorrow. There will be shades and tints we haven’t seen before, and we’ll need to incorporate them or fall behind those who do.

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