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Reimagining Professionalism

Reimagining Professionalism

Nov 19, 2021

By: Darrie Matthew Burrage

It stands to reason that when employees believe that they belong, matter, and are safe in their work together, an organization benefits from more motivated, productive team efforts. In this article, we invite you to explore how a traditional view of “professionalism” can actually get in the way of allowing individuals from showing up as their best selves.

When we remark that something or someone is “professional,” it is easy to assume that we all carry the same understanding of what that term means. Professionalism is a convention in our society that is used in reference to a preferred approach of working together; and, it doesn’t point to a singular way of being or behaving.

Professionalism can mean many different things. It might point to an elevated level of career experience, an earned credential, the quality of a process or an item produced, a set of expectations related to behavioral conduct, a type of ethical and moral approach, or even the very appearance of one’s body appearance and how it’s adorned. These artifacts of professionalism usually grant access to a variety of capital, including financial (increased profit), social (advantageous relationships), and experiential capital (desirable opportunities).

The notion of professionalism becomes problematic when it indicates our belonging to select groupings of people based on elitist credentialing of what we perceive as people’s intelligence, history, and economic class. Often, the more “professional” one is considered to be, determines the degree to which an individual will be taken seriously, viewed as capable and promising, given the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately trusted. In a work context, this may equate with being selected for a role and promotions or selected for new responsibilities and projects.

When we police the professionalism of others (offering guidance or correction for a norm viewed as professionalism), we alert them to the risk of not belonging. This feedback could, in fact, be an expression of care: “I want you to belong, too!” Or, contrarily, the feedback could be a way of protecting the groups to which we belong by not allowing access to new members. Belonging can, indeed, be a motivator to cultivate caring connections. But belonging, as it relates to professionalism, often operates from a zero-sum view of “who or what is or is not professional” — in other words, “who or what belongs or does not” drawn from what may be our in-group bias.

While professionalism can be a principle to equalize people (mirroring our altruistic desire and calling to render justice in the world), routinely in our humanity we assemble structures and norms that stratify individuals and communities — constructing class and caste social systems. How might we, instead, challenge ourselves to harness the best in each of us to unlock a level of belonging that is favorable for all; honoring our individual uniqueness in tribute to communal excellence?

What might we be missing in our reference to and practice of professionalism?

We use professionalism to point to a particular way of existing in the world; in which case, we should also point to the history of professionalism as well. Professionalism, in our nation, is rooted in a time when business and property owners (i.e., slave owners) were almost always white men. These individuals were the leaders of American commerce who modeled the standards for orchestrating business in ways that exclusively reflected their European heritage, their newly entrenched supremacist culture, and the elitist view of what is exemplary and proper.

White supremacist ideologies governed a manner of commerce that intentionally excluded women and, principally, people of color – their bodies as well as the attitudes, habits, and approaches native to their experience of the world. To individuals who forcibly existed on the margins of society, the message became apparent: to have a chance to participate and succeed in American commerce, one must act in ways that are convincingly familiar to access the trust held by those in power; in other words, performing masculine whiteness in the work context without having the white male body itself – the norms of which are frequently proclaimed as “professional”.

As time has progressed, oppressed groups in America have learned how to perform masculine whiteness in their work contexts to garner the trust needed to thrive economically and culturally. These “professional lessons” are often subtly conveyed as we observe our elders getting ready for work and in how they share about their days in the evenings; we may be overtly taught in our high school and college internships; and given the historical testaments and stresses that may still linger deeply in our bodies, we are taught professionalism even on an epigenetic level.

An example of this might be a Black woman changing her name on her resume from Johnese to Johanna to have a stronger chance at being more “acceptable” and familiar to potentially racially biased reviewers. But for Johnese, her performance does not end once she is hired for the job. Rather, her tap dance continues, and she may feel the pressure of needing to codeswitch in order to survive and excel in her workplace; a tactic she may have been taught in her upbringing, tragically. What is the quality of Johnese’s performance and for how long can she maintain a dance that is inauthentic and dishonoring of her culture, values, identity, and direction in life?

What is prompting us to reimagine professionalism?

Our society has been on a decades-long journey of privileging, persuading, and protecting a particular modality of work. Professionalism, as we know it, seems so large that it’s challenging to even conceive of an alternative way of being in our workplaces. However, events in recent time have caused us to reconsider our views of professionalism – shaking our nation and the whole world: the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements and the Coronavirus global pandemic.

Related to the purposes and demands of the movement, #MeToo urged us to cultivate workplaces where women can work under the protection of physical and psychological safety, under conditions of better standards of behavior and accountability. Similarly with Black Lives Matter (BLM), the desire, or more perhaps more accurately, the demand for Black individuals and communities to be seen as humans deserving of respect, celebration, and realized freedom is becoming more widely understood and supported. The combination of the two movements can be regarded as the yearning of historically oppressed groups to have their lives, bodies, histories, and dreams treated with unwavering honor and dignity.

Coronavirus (COVID), coincidentally ushered in new, practical ways of working. With remote work, wearing suit coats with accompanying pajama bottoms that match the slippers on our feet became a new, often unstated norm of work. For many of us, COVID unlocked new ways to accomplish our work, and for many organizations, it unlocked a new perspective on what it means to trust employees. The absence of in-person “noticings” has compelled us to trust that employees are making the choice to work with integrity and care. In fact, in many cases, organizations have discovered positive outcomes of this new way of working.

#MeToo, BLM, and COVID, taken together, have enabled us to see one another as more dynamic and completely human; unveiling the external structures and personal vices that have inhibited us from doing so before. We have the opportunity to engage with one another with richer authenticity and without presenting ourselves as unidimensional. We are readying ourselves to confront a new way of working that may better reflect and excite the whole of us – a liberated form of professionalism.

What is liberated professionalism?

As radical as it may seem to consider, professionalism doesn’t have to be thrust on us; but can be generated from us. We can take an inductive, grassroots approach to professionalism by identifying our own personal work standards. A personal work standard (PWS) is an individualized definition and practice of excellence in the context of work: excellence in our task execution, how we connect with colleagues, how we serve our community and clients, and how we honor ourselves.

If we take time to ideate, define, and communicate our PWS to our peers and leaders, it offers us the opportunity to recognize and advocate for our needs and dreams. Sharing our PWS may also open the door to a more effective and customized approach to feedback. When our feedback to colleagues is based on traditional standards of professionalism, we may interpret the root of the feedback as contrary to our own values related to work; making the implementation of the feedback superficial and half-hearted. When the feedback is based on a team member’s own PWS, though, we speak in a language that is native to them and allows them to return to their own, self-defined parameters of excellence. Evoking another’s PWS is akin to “meeting other’s where they’re at.”

While the operative term in PWS is, indeed, “personal,” sharing our standards can extend from the individual level to the organizational level. The collective reporting of each team and department PWS allows an organization to discover commonalities amongst colleagues as well as trends across the organization of what is genuinely and intrinsically valued by the workforce. This inductive process is a human-first strategy that can uncover the authentic and more accurate identity (i.e., DNA) of our organizations. Our grounded awareness of our organization’s innate DNA can build employee trust, loyalty, and advocacy.

We invite you to explore the concept of a personal work standard as a method of exposing and deposing our inheritance of workplace mentalities and practices historically steeped in elitist, capitalistic, masculine whiteness (i.e., conventional professionalism). We hope that you are inspired to espouse the sentiments etched in the spirit of #MeToo, BLM, and COVID to offer a liberated notion of professionalism where all employees (especially those generationally oppressed) can belong, matter, and be safe in our work together.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to my fellow Integrated Work colleagues Anna Crittenden, Jennifer Simpson, and Catherine Saar who supported my work here; offering their wisdom to expand my perspective, their revisions to make my writing stronger, and their encouragement to, at long last, complete this piece. You amplify my impact.