Professionalism vs Authenticity
How You Act Is Who You Are
In the 1980s and ’90s, when few women held positions of influence, I was constantly wondering how I could be myself while also demonstrating my potential and finding my place in a workplace culture where confident men set the tone. My self-conscious efforts to adapt often left me either tongue-tied or nervously verbose.
In the following decade, as my work grew more global, I spent a lot of time pondering how to tailor what I offer to meet the needs of wildly different audiences. This added another level to my confusion. Since I was often second-guessing my words (“was that an appropriate suggestion for this culture? should I have said something else?”), I struggled to speak with a clear voice.
Then, my colleague Bill Wiersma sent me an advance copy of his landmark book, The Power of Professionalism.
Bill makes a persuasive case that thinking of ourselves as professionals can help ground us in a range of situations. For me, this insight served as a lightbulb moment. I realized that much of my self-consciousness was rooted in my always thinking of myself as a woman, an American, or both. This focus on identity had the effect of making me feel apart rather than a-part-of.
By contrast, aspiring to be a professional—someone who makes commitments and acts on them in a way consistent with their values, but in a way that avoids judging those who may have different values —gave me an instant bond with anyone who had made a similar commitment, regardless of culture or background.
So instead of wondering whether I should be more or less assertive, or whether I needed to calibrate my words to suit those whose experience might be different than mine, I began simply asking myself if a particular response or story marked me as a professional.
When I did, the boundaries I’d been anxiously trying to surmount evaporated.
Professionalism is a great leveler. A young employee can be more professional than a senior manager. A nurse can be more professional than a highly trained surgeon. A freelancer who writes a speech can be more professional than the big shot VP who delivers it.
Nor is professionalism limited to those in corporate cultures or what have been traditionally identified as professional services: lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants.
Instead, a professional is anyone who adheres to a code of commitments, ethics, and behavior in their work. Bill points out that electricians, hairstylists, childcare workers, carpenters, postal service employees and front-line workers can be far more professional than those with advanced degrees. “Professionals,” he says, “can hold PhDs from top universities or from the school of hard knocks,”
Drawing on Bill’s work, here are my own rules for acting and speaking as a professional:
Professionals respect other people’s time—they show up on time and make an effort to speak concisely.
Professionals exhibit patience—they listen carefully and avoid seeming rushed.
Professionals don’t complain—they understand that things don’t always work out as planned, so they accept setbacks and move on.
Professionals don’t engage in gossip—they keep negative observations and stories to themselves.
Professionals help others to shine—they don’t dominate the conversation and they are generous with praise.
Professionals show appreciation—they prioritize thanking anyone who helps them do their job.
Professionals strive to communicate clearly —they think things through in advance so they can say exactly what they mean.
In my experience, the true power of professionalism is that it allows you to assume an identity that is at once truly your own and one that everybody understands. Position, background and experience are important but professionalism outdoes them all.