Being Professionally Unprofessional

Punctuality… check

Politeness… check

Appropriate Attire… check

Attention to detail… sometimes

Respectful… up to a point

Authoritative… hmm

Certainty… if only

I increasingly don’t like the term ‘Professional’ and what it represents. Don’t get me wrong, I like the basics – punctuality, appropriate attire, politeness etc – but actually think that a lot of what mascarades for professionalism actually creates distance between us, and if we can’t connect as people, we can’t do very much at all.

“A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” Alistair Cooke

How often do we mistake supposed professionalism for competence? I’d much rather listen to bumbling honesty than slick presenter any day. And rather than admire the sharp suits and the spreadsheets, I’d much rather work with people who embrace uncertainty with a sense of humour and determined optimism.

In one of my first jobs, in an appraisal after a probationary period, after lots of positive feedback, one of my ‘areas for development’ was described as follows: “When you are in a situation where you are not sure about what the answer is, you are not sufficiently good at bullshitting.” Obviously such colloquial language didn’t make the final report, but I find that sentiment astounding in hindsight. Perhaps I should wear that as a badge of honour!

Anyway, I guess I’ve always felt like a bit of a square peg in a round hole (doesn’t everybody?) and I know others perhaps feel the same. And yet we now find that the very reasons why we didn’t perhaps always suit our previous organisations are the very reasons why we do what we do now. To think a bit differently. To ask stupid questions. To try to do good stuff.

put down your clever - nv12-friday-20120615-DSCF4904.jpg

Surely people only want to work with other people that they like and they respect. And most of the stuff we all do is too difficult and complex to do on our own. And our hierarchies arn’t big enough or ugly enough to get it done on their own.

So rather than aspiring to be aloof gurus, or professional experts, I would prefer us to ‘put down your clever’ and admit that we don’t necessarily know what to do but we’ll figure it out with enthusiasm, and perhaps find some other curious likeminds that can perhaps help out. For me that’s much more productive, more interesting, and more unprofessionally professional.

by Roland



  1. I couldn’t agree more. It’s as if we want to pretend that, when in the office, we’re not humans. As if some companies think they’re only employing those parts of someone that they need – that have demonstrable, measurable utility!

    Emotions, humour, fun, a yearning for closeness, a sense of belonging and pride – all these things are part of the human experience and you can no more turn them off than you can successfully hide a yawn (but we do still try, don’t we?) when you’re trying to sit through a three hour presentation on something you don’t really understand!

    The worst part of it all is that we really do make people feel like outsiders. This culture of po-facedness is no less harmful to inclusiveness than was the uber-macho, sexist culture so prevalent in some business in years gone by (and some still today). While that made women (and, to a lesser degree, men who felt embarrassed to be around that sort of behaviour) feel unwelcome and like they didn’t fit, this new religion of dryness is, perhaps even more damaging because the clever, witty, driven and energetic people of both genders who feel most constrained by the dogma of “professionalism” are perhaps the most important of all to any business which aims to be dynamic, creative and agile.

    Now, this is purely speculation and I’m happy to be shot down, but while writing that last bit I came to wonder if these two cultural changes aren’t related. The old-school sexist, macho culture of some corporations has often been demonstrated through reference to racy humour and raucous, laddish audacity. In attempting, nobly, to end this oppressive culture, has personality, humour and just plain “being a human” become collateral damage? It’s easy to see how a drive to end “inappropriate” behaviour, as it would have been euphemistically called, could lead some overzealous managers to start cracking down on anything that was edgy or different. And even if the managers didn’t apply the rules poorly, the meme spreading across the workforce may have been no less damaging. What was intended as anti-bullying may have been interpreted as anti-humour.

    You can see how some people, seeing their colleagues reprimanded or even fired for making a joke (it’s hard to tell apart the bullying that often wears jocular clothing from real attempts at connecting on a human level that is the intent of most genuine humour), might have started to modify their behaviour – dial back on the personality and put on the mask of “professionalism” to avoid the risk of career limiting episodes of “being a person”. Because, if “offensive” humour isn’t allowed, well, that’s pretty much ALL humour when you come down to it. Unless you’re planning to utterly neuter your humour there’s pretty much no way you can say anything subtextual and clever that someone, determined to be offended, could not find a way to interpret in a negative fashion. So why take the risk? Best to stick to nice, simple, boring, soul destroying, personality hiding, self denying, creativity stifling, culturally-genocidal, “professionalism”.

    I think there’s a best selling book on people management and cultural change here, tentatively titled ‘Send in the Clowns: why laughter really is the best medicine for a ailing business’. Any publishers in the house?

  2. Oh gods! I’ve just spotted that the last time I posted a response to one of your blogs I began with the exact same phrase: “I couldn’t agree more”. I need to stop using that one so much – makes me sound sycophantic.

  3. Hey thanks Aran for the heartfelt comment. That’s a blog post in it’s own right! I remember getting a fortune cookie years ago that said “life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel”. Either way, I think perhaps many organisations need to rebalance the analytical and emotional, not just because it’s nicer, but because it’s necessary to collaborate successfully.

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