What Is Professionalism Now?

Jim Karrh On Marketing

What Is Professionalism Now?

Like you, I work with professionals of many stripes. Some even use the term “professional” to describe their work (e.g., a professional speaker) or what they offer (e.g., a menu of professional services).

At its most basic definition, being a professional means getting paid for one’s work. But of course there is a deeper implication: Professionals know what they are doing and they act accordingly. I wonder whether something important — the meaning of “professionalism” itself — is at risk these days.

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We are in the middle of a communication upheaval, full of divisions and distractions. People work in different ways. There is more cultural weight given to customization and individual preferences. Given our new realities, is the very idea of professionalism stuck in some old-fashioned, overly rigid set of norms?

On the other hand, professionalism might represent a valuable and timeless set of ideals — one we could really use today. After all, when we are less connected through traditional institutions, some set of commonly valued behaviors might help.

As a practical business matter, if the professionalism bar is being lowered in many respects, then this topic represents a path for professionals and organizations to stand out. So I offer this handful of observations from my work across industries, geographies and demographic groups:

► Professionalism includes transparency without TMI, too much information. Being a professional comes with clarity about what it is you offer, the problems you help solve, what’s in it for you, the values to which you adhere and the types of customers or clients who are (and are not) the best fit. It does not mean you have to share your life story in every conversation.

► Professionalism includes empathy without the suffering. Almost every professional I know expresses the desire to build trust. Recognize that professional trustworthiness is itself a roughly equal combination of expertise and empathy. In a business setting, empathy means you have and can demonstrate an appreciation for the customer’s situation — including strengths, goals, constraints, hopes and fears. That is not the same thing as sympathy or a feeling of concern about the other person. (As a psychologist explained to me, we can be sympathetic toward a suffering animal but not empathetic.) Professionals develop their empathy so that they can use their expertise for the customer’s greatest benefit.

► Professionalism includes speaking without upspeaking. There’s no better way to demonstrate your expertise and empathy than through real-time human conversations. So why waste those precious conversational opportunities because of a destructive speech pattern? An unfortunate number of professionals — especially younger ones — speak with high-rising terminals so that their attempts at statements sound more like questions. That undercuts otherwise valuable input and ideas.

► Professionalism involves standards without stuffiness. Have you ever discussed manners with a child? You might have at some point heard a response such as “Why are there so many stupid manners rules in the first place?” Manners and other behavioral norms have generally survived because they provide comfort and predictability. Professionals today do their best to be on time, make eye contact, respect boundaries, show gratitude and offer other small acts so that the people around them will be at ease and feel valued.

► Above all, professionalism is about respect. I believe that a sense of professionalism — even imperfectly practiced — sets a tone of respect for yourself, your organization or cause, your industry and especially other people as individuals.

It isn’t the easiest path. I mess up all the time. But it is a worthwhile set of practices.

Some economic slowdown is inevitable; perhaps it has already begun. Investors predictably follow a flight to quality when markets tighten.

Similarly, as the markets for talent change and growth opportunities become less obvious, I believe that in many quarters there will be a flight to professionalism.

This is a big topic, and I have likely missed some things. How do you define — and perhaps model — professionalism in your business?

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a consultant and professional speaker, host of “The Manage Your Message Podcast” and author of the upcoming book “The Science of Customer Connections.” See JimKarrh.com, email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.