What is Professionalism?
Professionalism is defined by Merriam Webster as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person” but this definition is too broad and unfocused. Professionalism as implied by the word’s common usage refers to the conduct of people in their professions. It does not describe the aims, as the individual may have desires or aims separate from the business they work for. Regardless of their personal aims they must still conduct themselves in a way becoming of an employee representing their organization.
This is apparent when you think of sentences using the word professionalism. “You must dress professionally.” Conduct. “You must speak professionally.” Conduct. “What you did was not very professional.” Conduct. If you think through the way people use the term, it almost always is in reference to their conduct.
What is the Origin?
In its use the word professionalism primarily deals with how an employee must conduct themselves: but where did it come from? It is separate from conduct at home or conduct in public. There is a specific code of conduct applied to work: again the normative use of the word professionalism.
I would speculate that it may have arisen in the dark ages or earlier when professionals were tied to guilds. Their actions would reflect on the guild and so to preserve the guild honor and reputation they would have to conduct themselves correctly. Incorrect action and behavior could ostracize or even get them expelled from their guild. As time progressed and guilds were replaced with industries and companies the conduct of professionals was maintained. This is purely speculative on my part, but I believe it may be a potential answer to the question of inception.
Is Professionalism Good?
Regardless of its source it exists and must be evaluated. The first benefit, the one springing from my theory of its origin, is a positive representation of the business to outsiders. Professionalism in this sense is simply about public relations and opinion, two things which are crucial to any successful organization. But why does it exist inside a company where they are further from the public eye. One guess may be internal professionalism is for when visitors come through the building. But that still seems like a strange reason considering the infrequency of people visiting many offices and how little of the building visitors see when there. The reason may be tied more to the value it could impart to individuals.
Dressing in a professional fashion affects the bearing of the person. Wearing business attire makes you feel professional, empowered, and sets the mind in a work first attitude. When dressed professionally you feel ready to do your work. Work attire is also part of a routine that helps the mind separate home life from work life. That separation can help with productivity. At home it is not crucial to be productive with your time, but at work it is a necessity. Dressing in work clothes can help the mind shift into a more productive attitude. Likewise, at the end of the day when you come home being able to take off the work clothes allows you to shed the work mindset and replace it with a more relaxed one. In this way dressing professionally actually helps with the work life balance.
Another element of professional conduct is behavior. For many people they have to dial back their personality, this includes positive attributes such as extroversion. If they did not hold back they would be very distracting to other employees. Also, if there was no standard about conversation, work could also turn into an eternal social hour. In this way professional behavior helps minimize distractions. It is needless to say that negative behaviors, like aggression would be highly inappropriate, in any setting, and counterproductive at work.
So productivity and public opinion are the two primary benefits gained from professional behavior. In addition to courtesy and civility internally and externally. However, is there anything lost because of professionalism?
Is Professionalism Bad?
With professionalism there are some potential drawbacks. Professionalism may produce anxiety in some. People who tend to hyper-focus will become highly preoccupied with what behavior is considered appropriate and be unable to function because they are too focused on what are the rules and norms in a professional environment. Even people who do not have the tendency to hyper-focus are prey to this, they may consider professionalism a minefield to navigate and in the attempt to cross the no man’s land they lose sight of the objective, their productivity.
Though professionalism does not likely cause anxiety in most it still may undermine creativity. There is certainly benefit to creativity, and it often is the life force of organizations when they start and as they evolve with change. Without it an organization is doomed with the next change. Creativity often requires some form of breaking from the normal, which is in fact what creativity is. A regulated and regimented environment like the workplace and the expectations of professionalism are not conducive to thinking outside the box.
Professionalism is something that has a few drawbacks but mostly promotes qualities and practices preferable in the workplace and for productivity. There is a small price in the form of the outliers like the more anxious or creative individuals. As such the degree to which you adhere to common professional standards will be based on how innovative your company wants to be. Otherwise it may be beneficial to maintain a high level of professionalism. Regardless of how creative your company is, this topic is important to consider since we spend so much time in our professions.
What other pros and cons do you see and do any of those tip the balance in favor of professionalism or otherwise?