Today’s post is from returning guest author Mathew Knudson, a first-year doctoral student at Vanderbilt University and recent Temple University Alum. You can contact him here and connect with him on LinkedIn here.
For many young people entering the workplace for the first time, “professionalism” conjures up a set of very particular images and behaviors. They think about how they should dress, which arm they should carry their padfolio in, what they should put in their email signature, and how to shake hands correctly.
In this sense, professionalism seems like just some antiquated hang over of a time gone by, an arbitrary set of rules and rituals. It’s nothing but playing dress up, a mere shell of the real thing. This shell completely misses the deeper traits of real professionalism, which truly creates value for both employees and employers.
A Professional is Accountable.
The first trait of deep professionalism is accountability. To be professional in the deeper sense is to be accountable for your mistakes, for your failures, and most importantly, for your promises. No one likes a coworker that always shirks blame. No one likes an employee that can never admit a mistake or a boss that can never take criticism from his workers. No one likes a person that constantly makes promises and then never follows through on them.
While shirking in a hard situation is a nice pain-killer, it is ultimately a quick fix that leaves you even worse off in the long run. You’ll soon find that your co-workers never want to work with you. When you need help, no one will respond. When you promise to get something done, you may find people rolling their eyes and making a “plan B” that in their minds is really “plan A”. Your boss will quickly lose patience with you, or if you are the boss, your employees will quickly lose morale.
No Accountability, No Power.
Ultimately, the worst effects of this behavior are really on you. The lies you tell others very quickly become lies you tell yourself. You tell your boss that you couldn’t get the project done on time because of some impassable obstacle thrust upon you by circumstance, but inside, you know it was because you procrastinated and your predicted “adrenaline rush” didn’t materialize.
The conflict between what you tell others and what you tell yourself is not pleasant. You don’t want to believe you’re a liar, so soon you find yourself genuinely believing that you’re cursed by fate, that every failure really coincided with some external force acting against you. With such a distorted view of the world, you have no way to grow. You’ll have constructed a worldview in which you are already perfect. In this view you will be completely at the behest of fortune to accomplish your goals, and fortune will often be against you. You’ll have innocence at the cost of disempowering yourself.
Accountability Leads to Growth.
By contrast, the person who is genuinely accountable has to take the discomfort of admitting fault. That is a short term burn, but it will make you stronger in the long run. You’ll develop a reputation for talking straight, you’ll have a truthful assessment of your skills and situation, and you’ll know how to improve for next time. Your opinion will actually carry weight because people know that you will admit your failures when they are really your own. And that short term discomfort in admitting fault will encourage you to avoid it by actually coming through on your word. Here, professionalism serves to encourage better work habits, growth, and honesty.
A Professional Is Respectful.
The second trait of deep professionalism is respect for others. Punctuality is first and foremost, and it has been written about very eloquently here. In brief, to be punctual is to show respect for the time of others- and to demonstrate that you are an organized person that has her affairs in order, a person with realistic ideas of how long it takes to do a task, and of her own capabilities.
Manners and etiquette are another way of restraining our behavior to a degree so as to not be offensive or inappropriate. This is different than being dishonest or being a yes-man, both despicable traits. It is a restraint of when and how you do things, but not necessarily what. When you are invited to give your genuine opinion, most definitely give it. When you are spending time with someone on a personal level, feel free to loosen up. But in the world of work, many people need to come together for many different purposes. A basic level of manners (which includes refraining from gossip and drama) is the lubrication that keeps the gears turning and prevents unnecessary offense in our interactions with coworkers, clients, bosses, professors, and others.
Looking Professional is About Looking Respectful.
Appearance, the most well-known aspect professionalism, is ironically the most controversial as well. Many people feel that it discriminates against the poor, prevents people from expressing themselves, or serves as an unnecessary conservative institution.
All of this confuses looking professional with being fashionable. 5 pairs of pants and 5 dress shirts, along with a belt, black tie, and shoes come to around 245 dollars, assuming you’re buying retail, and much less at a thrift shop. Most of these items should last you a year or two at the very least, or, in other terms, less than a dollar per workday. That is all that’s required to look professional. Expenditure beyond that is purely on fashion alone.
Mind you, many so called “casual” clothes are actually more expensive – one can easily spend upwards of 50-60 dollars on sneakers, upwards of 100 dollars on a pair of jeans, 30-40 dollars on a “designer” T-shirt, etc. Unless one dollar per day is too much for you (that’s less than 12 minutes of after-tax income per day at minimum wage), the money is really not a factor. Some basic level of grooming – that is, showering, shaving, wearing deodorant – is also not an expensive proposition.
The point of professional appearance is not to show off your wealth or your flair for fashion. The point is to dress for the occasion. People wear suits to weddings and funerals out of respect for the newlyweds and the deceased. These are special events that are worth taking the time and discomfort to dress up for. Dressing for work, at whatever standard is common at your workplace, is in the same vein. You’re indicating that the people you’re working with are worth a little discomfort and time, and, as with manners, you avoid offending people unnecessarily.
A Professional Puts Work First at Work.
The most common objection to all of this is generally some variation of “but I don’t wanna.” “The clothes are too uncomfortable and don’t let me express myself.” “Sticking to manners is boring, and I’d prefer to speak freely all the time.” “Being punctual is hard, being accountable is discomfiting, etc.”
There are a million and one excuses for a lack of deep professionalism, but at the end of the day, work is not play. Do the things you need to do when you need to, and you’ll have the job security and income to do the things you want to do when you want to. Suck it up and do it. Be polite to that difficult customer. Own up to your mistakes. At the end of the day, the benefits of being professional, in terms of advancement, social bonds, and personal growth far outweigh the costs of moderate discomfort or boredom.
To be deeply professional is to embody personal accountability and respect for others in a way that encourages personal growth and high quality work. A person who comes to work on time with a good attitude, and a sense of accountability is going to outperform a bum in a $600 suit every time. Save your money and improve your prospects – stop trying to simply look professional and actually be professional.