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Be Professional

Be Professional

During my career I have been counselled to ‘be professional’.  It’s usually when I am frustrated, angry, outraged at bullying or decisions that make people’s working lives harder for no reason, other than a manager’s lack of vision, and want to take a stand.  I am passionate, one manager called me ‘energetic’.  It seemed to me to be a euphemism for ‘pain in the &#$%’.

I’ve also noticed that the caution – or directive – to ‘be professional’, is mostly bandied about when I disagree.  Granted, someone might also use the admonishment of ‘be professional’ to someone dancing on a desk in abject euphoria, mostly though, it’s the threat or actuality of confrontation that prompts someone to bleat, ‘be professional’. 

It got me wondering, what exactly does ‘professional’ mean.

The Oxford dictionary defines professional as: doing something as a paid job rather than a hobby. Mirriam-Webster includes, exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.  Let’s further dissect this. 

Mirriam-Webster also has the following definitions:

Courteous: marked by respect for and consideration of others

Conscientious: meticulous, careful

Businesslike:  exhibiting qualities believed to be advantageous in business; serious, purposeful

Ahh, I think I’m onto something….’  exhibiting qualities believed to be advantageous in business’.  Qualities believed to be advantageous in business.  Qualities like not upsetting the bully or not drawing attention to behavioural problems that disrespect and demonstrate a lack of consideration for others, like not highlighting gaslighting, ambiguity, inefficiencies, lack of planning.  The list of what is not ‘advantageous in business’ is a litany of things that might create offense to those exhibiting those behaviours.

Is it just me, or is this an incongruent juxtaposition against the backdrop of ‘supporting employee’s mental health and general well-being’?  It’s alright, you can say ‘It’s just you’, it often is. 

I once had a life coach who shared a very valuable activity.  Whenever I said something was important to me, I had to estimate the percentage of actions that supported that thing and the subsequent percentage of actions that did not.  It’s a stunning wake-up call.

For example, living in a clean and tidy flat is important to me.  If 80% of my actions are towards having an untidy flat, leaving clothes on the floor, piling dirty dishes in the sink, vacuuming on a bi-annual roster, my actions would suggest having a clean and tidy flat isn’t important because, in this instance, actions really do speak louder than words.

If we say we care about workplace wellbeing, why then, do we counsel people to ‘be professional’ when that definition precludes the very actions required to actively demonstrate that workplace wellbeing is important?

Why have we come to use ‘be professional’ as an acceptable substitute to,

  • We can’t upset the bully.
  • I’m uncomfortable that you’re showing human emotions that aren’t happy, happy, joy, joy.
  • We could raise these very accurate concerns, however, that would probably mean we’d be dropped from the preferred supplier list, so we think it’s better that we don’t rock the boat.
  • Yes, it’s awful that people are being treated poorly, but think of the bottom line, think of the shareholders’ dividends.
  • I don’t want to change my bad behaviour, or even acknowledge it really, it’s just not something I’m interested in doing and since it’s my word against yours, and I’m in a more influential position, well, hey, you’re smart, you can work it out.

Why is silence and acquiescence to the will of those higher up the food chain ‘advantageous to business’?  Why does ‘be professional’ feel like a stripping away of our humanness?

If we’re truly focused on everyone’s wellbeing, perhaps it’s time to start upping the percentage of actions that support everyone’s wellbeing.

Perhaps it’s time to change the meaning of ‘be professional’ to include:

  • Raise issues of bullying
  • Callout gaslighting
  • Highlight the real inefficiencies
  • Question decisions that make working lives more difficult
  • Raise health, safety and environmental concerns

And do so knowing that management’s definition of ‘be professional’ includes:

  • Feel uncomfortable about confronting a manager’s bullying behavour and still take action to get them counselling and protect their colleagues
  • Remove poor people managers from positions of managing people
  • Provide a conduit for the people actually doing the work to offer improvement suggestions, listening to and where possible actioning those
  • Do some soul-searching around what values, the actions of the organisation demonstrate

What would you add to these lists?  And how can we all contribute to re-defining what it means to ‘be professional’?

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