Professionalism is one of those characteristics that are incredibly hard to define explicitly. People often talk about professionalism in the context of work (unsurprisingly) and will give positive or negative feedback depending on how professional your reactions to situations are. One of the struggles I’ve had with the idea of professionalism is that type of feedback because it is often conflicting. Imagine that in one of your feedback conversations your boss tells you that you are extremely professional and that it is one of your strengths. At the same time, that same boss gives you negative feedback, suggesting that you take some issues personally and need to work on your emotional reactions to problems. These, to me, conflict with each other.
I spent a long time thinking about the idea of professionalism because it’s a skill that can transform how people interact with you in the workplace. If they perceive you as professional, they usually have an easier time being candid with you and will give more honest feedback. They also tend to avoid gossiping or making questionable jokes to you because it comes across as out of place. Many different skills tie into being professional (or being unprofessional, as the case may be). Whether this is a character trait that you identify with or not, and whether you aspire to be professional in general or not, some aspects of it can elevate the impact you have in your position.
What does being professional mean?
Depending on the context and the situation, being professional can mean something different to each person.
The most common understanding for me has been the concept of “professional distance.” Professional distance is the ability to separate your emotional responses, feelings, and personal interests from everything that is involved in your job. Of all the skills that providing customer support has been helpful for, developing professional distance is definitely one of the most meaningful. It allows you to view yourself as a separate entity from the role that you fulfil in your job. For example, when a customer is angry and takes that emotion out on you, you’re able to keep your cool and react calmly, because you rationally understand that their anger is fundamentally targeted at the company.
Reacting emotionally to a situation is not professional because they often interfere with your ability to fulfil those job requirements to the best of your ability. If you aren’t able to remain calm, then the quality of the conversation degenerates. This is equally as true irrespective of whom you’re interacting with. For example, if a member of your team is stressed out and snaps at their colleagues (or you), you want to be able to remain professional in that situation. Remaining professional there means interrupting the conversation, giving them time to disengage and calm down, and keeping the situation under control.
Cultivating this kind of emotional distance enables you to display other characteristics that are extremely valuable, like owning up to a mistake or addressing a difficult issue honestly. If owning up to a mistake is seen and treated as a personal failure, then it’s much harder for people to reconcile themselves with that on an emotional level. If addressing a difficult issue means opening your own self up for criticism, people will be reluctant to do it, to say the least. The moment you get to a point where you have this distance and you perceive situations through a different lens, it becomes much easier to respond to them “professionally,” rationally, reasonably, and with integrity.
Sometimes, behaving unprofessionally can translate to being a little too familiar and informal in your interactions. This manifests itself in ways like making jokes or asking personal or inappropriate questions. It could also mean gossiping or sharing conversations that were intended to be private. These are the situations that are easiest to point out and avoid. The difficulty is in understanding when the situation crosses the line. Most of these interactions, to some degree, are part of team-building or relationship-building. It’s only when they cross that boundary that they become unprofessional.
Why is being professional a valuable skill in the workplace?
This might sound like a trick question because behaving professionally is often an unwritten rule. It helps to break down the ways in which it is valuable, however. It essentially enables you to perform at a higher level than you would otherwise. Because you cultivate professional distance, you’re able to respond to situations in a way that’s solution-oriented. Instead of focusing on what went wrong and feeling bad for it, you can start focusing on how to fix the problem and how to move on.
Some circumstances will be uncomfortable no matter what you do. Maybe you have to give personal feedback that’s very difficult to phrase in the way you intend it. Maybe you have to address a problem that’s extremely awkward and you’d much rather avoid. These are day-to-day situations that just happen. Having some tools available that allow you to meet these head-on can only make it easier for you. Professionalism is one of those skills that enables you to do so.
It can also help with your perceived stress levels. Stress is often a side-effect of multiple situations that you can face. One of those is when the boundaries between your professional life and your personal life get blurred. You start spending too much time thinking about the problems you face at work or you spend much more of your time stuck in a work mentality. This is often the case if these problems you’re facing feel personal, if they seem targeted at you or if it’s your individual responsibility to sort them out. Understanding that you are a different entity from “you at work” can help in recreating that boundary for yourself. If you have a project on your plate that’s extremely difficult to handle, it helps to realise that that project is actually the company’s project. Your responsibility is to do the best job you can. If it ultimately doesn’t turn out the way that you want it to, the responsibility will always be shared (with the company, your boss, your teammates or other people who are involved).
What does being too professional look like?
Being unprofessional is something that most people don’t want. However, it is possible to create an environment that’s too professional as well. Extremely corporate and hierarchical structures tend to be characterised by this and they’re usually not the best places to work. It does impact the culture you have across the company. If everyone is extremely professional all the time, people will generally never speak out of turn and they’ll hesitate to address issues. A certain amount of informal, social interaction is important for people to feel like they can trust their co-workers.
This can also be individual. If you as an individual are always formal (whether this is backed up by your culture or not), it’ll be harder for you to build relationships with the people around you as well. It will discourage all aspects of unprofessionalism, which might be an advantage, but it’ll leave people perceiving you as cold. That’s an image that’s easy to break up if you invest time in interacting with people on a one-on-one level, if they see you smiling, and if you ask them questions about themselves.
What you’re aiming for is finding the right balance. That’s the point at which you create an environment where people are connected through some values, while simultaneously understanding that work is work.
Can professionalism teach you anything for everyday life?
In some ways, professionalism has a lot in common with Stoicism. It teaches you to be present and aware of your emotions. It can also teach you to separate your reactions from your feelings. Once you know how to respond to a situation rationally, irrespective of how you feel about it, you can apply this to any part of your life. Most emotional responses tend to be counterproductive when you’re trying to deal with a problem. That isn’t to say that there’s no space for feelings. They’ll always be essential and they enrich our lives in many ways but it helps to be able to react differently in some situations (if you’re dealing with an argument, for example).
Professionalism can also make it easier to speak up in situations that others might shy away from. There’s no limit on situations where not speaking up is the easiest response. This is especially the case in many family settings or within group settings that result in peer pressure. Recognising when you feel uncomfortable with a situation and training yourself into addressing it is a way to be more honest in everyday life.