When was the last time you walked into a business and wanted to go back because of the generic, cardboard treatment you received at the hands of an emotionless drone? Probably never, right?
Over the years I’ve pondered what, exactly, constitutes professional behavior. We see unprofessional behavior all the time– laziness, swearing, bullying, people who act like their jobs are all about them… the list could be endless. But what, in your mind, causes you to say, “wow, that person was very professional?”
During my first full-time job back in the day I was introduced to business speak. I was listening to a female supervisor banter with some male business guests and felt incredibly awkward about the exchange. But the exchange was, by some standards, professional. It sounded like all parties in the conversation were reading lines from a Dale Carnegie seminar or the latest trendy book on sales that everyone bought because they knew someone else who bought it.
“It is interesting to observe your operations.”
(polite laughter, “a ha ha ha”)
“We’re about improving the bottom line.”
(“Yes, yes, a ha ha ha.”)
“We must improve our paradigm and shift our resources to the bifurcated capital establishment.”
(“Great, a ha ha ha.” Generic smiles and emphatic nodding. This could have been anybody talking to anybody.)
My young mind thought, “that’s how people do business?” These people did not sound like they were talking to other human beings; it was more like they were trading superficial niceties with fancy, fashionable labels, accomplishing…? The stroking of an ego? Future opportunities to throw around more ’90s phrases?
Anyone who knows me well is aware that I don’t do superficial. If someone walks up to me and politely sneers, “hiiiii, how are yooooouuu?” they should be expecting an honest answer. While on the phone, as a public servant, I’m not going to launch into a detailed description of my neighbor’s mishap with his Nutri Ninja the night before, I still cringe when, “to be professional,” I say, “good.” Because if I’m not good, I feel like a liar.
Similarly, I feel that spending any amount of time sounding like I’m reading from a script during a business interaction is largely a waste. We’ve all done this dance. We exchange pleasantries, we toss around worn euphemisms, we talk about the kids’ sports and how the Seahawks are doing. But I believe everyone has a story. Everyone is unique and has something to give. To me a professional person is one who treats me as an individual and shows true caring rather than going through the motions of what they believe their bosses expect of them.
The other night I was brainstorming terms that that can be synonymous with professional. I’m just going to share it as it came to mind, because I’ve both worked in places where some of these traits are expected and witnessed it as a client or citizen.
Having the right to insult and disparage others
Using worn, shallow, generic phrases instead of actually communicating with people
Not allowing creativity or individuals’ personality traits
Demanding uniformity rather than emphasizing individuals’ strengths
Reading from a script
Have you ever felt this way at work? Like you’re expected to be a robot and just paste on a smile and say the same things no matter who you’re talking to? My question to management is, “when have you ever felt better after being treated this way?” Another question is, “is that really what your customers or public want?”
Then I made my list of qualities I consider professional:
Willing to think outside the box
Individual personality traits shine
Takes issue to the next level if needed
Respects me as a taxpayer, citizen, customer
Someone I’d want to talk to again
Obviously there are jobs and situations in which we have to show restraint. We can’t create liability for our organizations by apologizing, showing too much emotion, or becoming overly involved. We have defined roles and protocols. But almost every contact we have is an opportunity to treat others like their problem and input is important– because it often is.
If someone is being entitled or demanding you can always wait until you hang up or walk away to rassa frassa aahhhhh!!… and I openly admit to having my rassa frassa aahhh!! moments throughout the day. It’s no secret. I just have to ensure that I was professional enough to allow them to air their grievances (within reason) and make sure they felt heard. They took the time to call; even if they didn’t get the answer they wanted, they need to at least have the satisfaction that a fully functioning human being heard them out.
Government employees in particular can get a bum rap for being staid automatons who are just there for the paycheck. Fortunately I work with hundreds of people who aren’t like that at all. My circles are brimming with personality and I love that. But once in a while you’ll walk into some agency where you find a little truth to the stereotype and think, “It’s Roz! From Monsters, Inc.!” In particular, people don’t like being treated generically or talked down to by those in authority.
This can be a particularly sensitive issue in law enforcement because police officers have to maintain solid boundaries while interacting with all types of people. However, some of the most effective cops and other law enforcement employees I’ve known are those who command respect through being personable and committed to solving the problem at hand. Frankly, when you’re talking to them, you feel like you’re being taken seriously by a fellow resident of earth rather than simply being preached at or chastised by a superior life form. The latter may be seen as professional, but the former is infinitely better received by the public and causes both victims and suspects to open up.
Having been a front counter person for many years, this same behavior can happen in that venue. When you walk up to get help, do you want someone to stare at the ceiling like Steve in Office Space and start in with a monotone, “Good evening sir, my name is Steve. I come from a rough area. I used to be addicted to crack but now I am off it and trying to stay clean. That is why I am selling magazine subscriptions.” If you’ve seen the movie you know exactly what I’m driving at.
And– no! When I interact with someone at the counter I want to know who they are, how I can help them, and find something to laugh about while I’m at it. It creates rapport and fosters a mutual problem solving relationship rather than an adversarial one. I often notice people’s hats or t-shirts and strike up conversations about what’s on them. Inevitably we all know someone who knows someone who also stalks Bigfoot, served in a particular war, or enjoys being a walking billboard for a certain brand.
Next time you’re at the store/renewing your tabs/mailing a package/reporting a crime/buying a suit/getting a new battery for your cell phone that seems to be inhabited by sadistic, power hungry micro-gnomes, ask yourself if you’d treat you that way. Seriously. Were you treated as an individual with a unique need? Was the interaction pleasant or would you have felt the same if strapped to the wall of an overcrowded squash court with a blindfold on and bad Burt Bacharach muzak playing?
Ultimately, the question I’m asking is, “what feels professional to you?” Is it the generic, impersonal, outdated junk that’s been instilled in us from early on that we spew without thinking twice, or is it being human and helping other human beings find solutions? You already know the answer because you already know what speaks to you. Now go and do that, and watch how it transforms your relationships, your job, and your success.
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
©2014 H. Hiatt/wildninjablog.com. All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/wildninjablog.com.
3 thoughts on “Being Professional”
I am fortunate that my clients are my friends, so being professional just means being me. Which, hopefully, people think entails the characteristics of your second list.
Thank you! You said it better than I did– just be yourself. Don’t try to be some weird impersonal type.
That said, some people should NOT be themselves if they’re trying to be professional. 🙂