Professionalism is Personal


Last summer, I had an intern who I encouraged to introduce herself to the group at an event in our co-working space. She mentioned public speaking made her nervous, so I thought it would be good practice and a great experience for professional development. She was hesitant, and asked me, “do I have to talk all professional?”

My response came in waves. At first, thinking protectively of my company’s image, I said, “yes,” but immediately changed my answer to, “actually, I’m not even sure what that really means. So…just show up as yourself, introduce yourself however you’d like to, and be respectful towards others.” She nodded.

The more I thought about this idea of “professionalism,” the more I realized how intangible it is. There are so many rules, yet so many inconsistencies. What to wear, what to say, how to say it, what body language to use, how to address others, how formal or casual to be in which situation, and so on. However, no matter how strictly you try to abide by these rules, how you are perceived can never be controlled. Every person will perceive you differently based on their own personality, culture, age, experiences — even the mood they are in in that moment will affect the way they perceive you.

There are the only three things I know to be consistently true about professionalism: it is subjective, it is different across cultures and generations, and it changes over time.

This brings me to the first half of the suggestion to my intern: just show up as yourself. In any situation, professional, social or otherwise, trying to fit yourself into a mold or trying to meet what you think are another’s expectations or standards, will prove exhausting and often unfulfilling. I think the most powerful thing you can be in a professional context (and in a social context, for that matter), is a balance of confident and humble. What this means is, show up as the self you are most comfortable being, bring your skills to the table and don’t be afraid to speak to them, but know that those skills don’t make you fundamentally better than anyone else. You are all on the same team.

The second half of the suggestion, upon further thought, was not great advice after all. Rather than “be respectful of others,” I should have said “treat others with kindness.” The important difference here is that respect is earned, and you’ll hold the level of respect you have for another person intrinsically. You may have personal or professional to not feel respect towards someone else, or it could just be a gut feeling or a “vibe”. Regardless of respect or lack there of, every person is worthy of kindness. If you practice tolerance and empathy towards opposing viewpoints, listen attentively, and have gratitude for what skills and resources they are able to contribute, you will not only have a more pleasant work experience, but you will get so much further in your career.

Something I’ve also been learning to bring more of into my own work is transparency. I remain open, honest, and communicative every step of the way as I work with each client so that they feel heard and supported. Operating my business with these three principles of professionalism, authenticity, kindness, and transparency, has made such a tremendous difference in my work. I’ve been booking more clients, I feel way more confident going into each meeting, and I’m having way more fun!

It will take generations of practice, but let’s begin to shift our mindsets from this typical workplace “professionalism.” Let’s cease to hold others in esteem for what clothes they’re wearing or how firm their handshake is. Instead, let’s reimagine the guidelines of professionalism to simply be authenticity, kindness, and transparency.