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I didn’t notice this in a project management environment. However, it made me wonder if wearing a suit was a tool that helped or hindered us as project managers.

I noticed this at an election polling place.  It was the general election. I was an election judge and we had a steady stream of people coming in to vote throughout the day.

Elections Judges and Project Managers In SuitsWhile elections are something we do on a yearly — hence regular — basis, the laws and rules that control the polling place process regularly change with time.  We, as election judges, often have to help people follow these rules.  Most of the time it is not a big problem.   Sometimes what we have to do can seem somewhat silly, and we have to remind people that we are following the law.

But that was not the real story here.  The real story was the apparent difference, based upon observing about 1200 people in a 13 hour period, between men and women that wore suits and everyone else.  How the “suit” reacted to the process of the polling place was notably unique.

The “suits” often rushed in and looked around intently.  Then, with great determination, they would walk to where they thought they needed to be. They often did not look at or read any of the — too numerous — posted instructions or arrows indicating directions. They also would often not make eye contact with any of the election judges — and we were usually watching for people who looked lost or confused so we could direct them to where they needed to go.

Asking a “suit” a question such as “what is your last name”  to help them get in the right line would often result in a frown and being ignored as they scanned the “battlefield” to see what line to assault (sorry, as they decide where to go on their own).

The voice of the “suit” was often louder and more pointed than average.  Giving their name or verifying their address — which we asked to identify them and to ensure they were getting the correct ballot — was often delivered in a commanding voice and a “you should know that” tone.  Telling them where to go next, in this case where to pick up the appropriate ballot, was often met with a huff and a “I knew that” or “you better be right” attitude.

Project Managers Using Suits As Tools

In this precinct it looked like “suits” were pretty much worn by managers and bosses.  This was not a place where the normal working folks (retail workers, computer programmers, engineers, etc.) would wear a suit. So the suit was not the normal uniform and appeared to be worn primarily by people in authority.

While anyone would get noticeably frustrated when we told them they were not registered to vote at our location (but we would call to see where they should be), the suit was often indignant.   I saw at least one “command” to “give me a ballot anyway” with the expectation that this command — when given with sufficient force and steely eyed look — was sufficient to override any legal procedure. They were not happy when it didn’t happen that way.

Most of this reflection is just in fun and not every “suit” was like this and we had some people not in suits that were just as demanding.   It was just interesting, once I noticed the first person comporting themselves this way and noticing it was one of the few people in suits, that I started to pay attention.  While some were more obvious than others there seemed to be a consistent pattern to the behavior (no, I did not test for statistical significance — nor even kept a tally).

I don’t know if it was the position or the suit or the predisposition to wear a suit in a community where the suit was not a common uniform that was the factor.  But it reminded me that just because we are the boss, the manager or the project manager we need to make sure we stay in touch with the greater reality and not get too caught up in our role. We are people first and we have to work effectively with other people.  The ability to appropriately adjust the role we play based upon where we are (e.g., in a polling place or in the office) is a great project management tool, with or without wearing a suit.

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4 thoughts on “Project Management By Suits

  1. Tim,

    Nothing wrong with suits, of course. Everything is a (project management) tool 😉 to some degree.

    Some of the tools I’ve used include:
    1. Walking a hallway initiated discussion to my office, so the “office” could have an influence towards my suggestions (just about always worked – some folks picked up on this and would quickly end the conversation at the door!)

    2. When I was young and in the military, I would wear my uniform when shopping for big ticket items (appliances, cars). This always helped me get better service as I otherwise looked very young (hence ignored) and in a military town, merchants knew how much one got paid just by looking at the rank on the uniform.

    3. Short hair cuts. When I was a computer security officer, I discovered by accident that if I had a tough meeting coming up that an extra short haircut worked wonders. I first noticed it when one senior officer, arguing that I was pushing for too much security, would get energetic about arguing why he shouldn’t have to do something and then, after glancing at my haircut, just deflate and lose his energy. I guess he assumed that anyone with almost a buzz cut was not susceptible to logic, persuasion or intimidation!

    Being aware of the impact of the “suits” we wear can be a great tool.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Bruce

  2. Tim James says:

    “Suits” and I include myself are often time pressured, which could well be part of the picture.
    Scanning obsessively I recognise – but the scanning should also be for information – notices and people.
    I have for many years worn a suit not because it was required of the work environment but for the effect is generates when meeting stakeholders. Meeting stakeholders in a suit presents a certain cultural norm and engenger expectations in the stakeholder that are often useful, even if they can then be jettisoned or subverted to create the ambience required. Expectations (heuristics) are a powerful tool. A suit provides a shorthand …

  3. Pat,

    A suit or other sign of authority (e.g. corner office) can be a useful tool, when used appropriately. I read somewhere that many capable and innovative people had a tendency to conform more when they get promoted. This often resulted in them no longer using their innovativeness, but instead “suiting up” to try and get that next promotion.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Pat Gray says:

    Too true! I’ve also noticed the transition from casual attire behavior to suit behavior when someone is anticipating or has achieved promotion. I always wondered if the tie interfered with blood flow to the brain – or the heart…

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