Meeting the Standards That Matter
Professionalism is a powerful quality. It allows you to fulfill your role to the best of your ability. It helps you to impress and inspire others. And it gives you a deep sense of satisfaction and self-worth.
What's more, professionalism is something that everyone can aspire to from day one of their career.
In this article we explain what professionalism means today, and show you how to act and feel like a professional – wherever you work.
What Is Professionalism?
As the saying goes, "Professionalism is not the job you do, it's how you do the job."
Professionalism involves consistently achieving high standards, both visibly and "behind the scenes" – whatever your role or profession.
Some sectors, workplaces or roles have particular "rules" of professionalism. These may be explicit, such as an agreed dress code, or a policy for using social media. Other rules and expectations may not be written down, but they can be just as important – such as what is regarded as professional behavior at meetings, or even how people personalize their desks.
It pays to be observant, and to ask for clarification if necessary. "Fitting in" is a big part of professionalism, as it's a way to show respect, attention to detail, and a commitment to upholding agreed practices and values.
However, "being true to yourself" is just as important. True professionals don't follow rules mindlessly, and they know when and how to challenge norms. They're also flexible, and they find their own ways to do things – while still maintaining high standards.
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8 Characteristics of Professionalism
What are the attributes that will mark you out as a professional? Let's look at eight key characteristics:
As a professional, you get the job done – and done well. Your abilities match the requirements of your role, and you often produce results that exceed expectations.
But you never plow on simply for the sake of appearances. Instead, your professionalism allows you to manage your own and others' expectations, and to ask for support when necessary.
Professionalism involves developing detailed, up-to-date knowledge, which is often highly specialized. At every stage of your career you can strive to master your role – and keep adding to what you know.
It's also important to put your knowledge into action. Being professional means feeling confident to show what you know – not for self-promotion, but to help yourself and others to succeed.
Professionalism involves being reliable, setting your own high standards, and showing that you care about every aspect of your job. It's about being industrious and organized, and holding yourself accountable for your thoughts, words and actions.
But don't confuse conscientiousness with working longer hours than everyone else, or obsessing about details. True professionals plan and prioritize their work to keep it under control, and they don't let perfectionism hold them back.
Integrity is what keeps professional people true to their word. It also stops them compromising their values, even if that means taking a harder road.
Integrity is bound up with being honest – to yourself, and to the people you meet. Your beliefs and behaviors are aligned, and everyone can see that you're genuine.
Professionalism means being a role model for politeness and good manners – to everyone, not just those you need to impress.
What's more, you show that you truly respect other people by taking their needs into account, and by helping to uphold their rights.
6. Emotional Intelligence
To be a true professional you need to stay professional even under pressure. This takes strategies for managing your emotions, plus a clear awareness of other people's feelings. In short, emotional intelligence is essential.
Sometimes, professionalism means keeping your emotions in check. But at other times it's important to express your feelings, in order to have meaningful conversations or to stand up for what you believe in.
A big part of being professional is knowing what's appropriate in different situations. It avoids awkwardness or upset, boosts your credibility, and helps you to feel secure in your role.
Appropriateness relates to outward appearances, such as dress, personal grooming and body language.
But it also covers the way you speak and write, the topics you choose to discuss, and how you behave with others.
Well-founded confidence reassures and motivates other people, boosting your ability to influence and lead. It also pushes you to take on new challenges, because you don't fear damaging your professional reputation if things go wrong.
Professionalism makes you confident about what you’re doing now, but always eager to do it better and achieve more.
How to Exhibit Professionalism
Now that we've seen the qualities that set professionals apart, let's explore ways to improve in each of these eight areas.
Improve Your Competence
Our article, 8 Ways to Prioritize Your Professional Development, shows how to lead your own learning and growth. It also explains how to work with others to boost the competence of your whole team.
Increase Your Knowledge
Don't let your knowledge and skills get outdated. Make a commitment to build expertise and to stay up-to-date with your industry.
As well as carrying out research, consider on-the-job training to maintain and develop detailed and relevant knowledge.
Use all the networking you do to stay well-informed about your industry as a whole. And see our Bite-Sized Training session, Building Expert Power, for ways to strengthen and apply your knowledge at every stage of your career.
Conscientiousness requires organization, so make regular use of To-Do Lists and Action Programs. You can also learn to be more conscientious by improving your concentration, to complete work more efficiently and accurately.
Resolve to honor your commitments and to learn from your mistakes, in order to develop strong personal accountability.
Our article, How to Be Conscientious, has a range of additional ideas for boosting this key aspect of professionalism.
Start by defining your own values, then spot any gaps between them and the way you actually behave. Our guide to authenticity explains why this is a lifelong process, involving self-knowledge, willingness to reassess your priorities, and the ability to change your behavior.
Ensure that you're clear about the laws that apply to your work, as well as any policies that your organization has in place to support ethical practices. These might include guidelines for fair procurement processes, or rules about accepting gifts from clients.
Whenever possible, explain your decisions and choices carefully. And do everything you can to make it easy for others to act with integrity, too.
Promote Mutual Respect
Make it a habit to be polite and kind to everyone you come into contact with. Notice what respectful behavior looks like in any given situation.
Sometimes you might need to develop your cultural understanding – and perhaps do some specific research before an overseas trip or an international meeting online.
You should also learn about any differences among your own people, so that you know how to help everyone feel safe, included and respected. A professional approach like this can help to create a culture of mutual respect.
Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
Start by increasing your awareness of your own emotions.
Then work on your ability to sense other people's emotions and needs. Active Listening is crucial here. You can also practice seeing things from other people's point of view, so that you empathize with them, and see how best to support them.
Emotional Intelligence can be learned like any other professional skill. There's a range of practical strategies for this in our article, Emotional Intelligence.
Always Behave Appropriately
This takes "Cultural Intelligence," driven by a commitment to respect cultural norms and thrive within different settings – which might be countries, organizations, or even different teams within one company.
It also requires understanding. Avoid making assumptions, do your research, be observant, and ask for advice if necessary. After that, it's about consistently making the effort to get your appearance, communication and behavior spot-on.
Remember that professionalism extends to social media, where inappropriate behavior is likely to be indelible. Social events, both on- and off-line, can also be challenging. See our article, When Work Involves Socializing, for tips on having fun and staying professional.
Boost Your Confidence
If you put the advice from this article into action, you can be confident that your professionalism will shine through.
However, if confidence is one of your weaknesses, use techniques for boosting self-confidence. Many professionals also have to manage Impostor Syndrome, so you may need to keep reminding yourself that you really are worthy of your role.
Professionalism When Working From Home
When you're working from home, many professional behaviors are as important as ever. You'll likely need to be punctual with virtual meetings, for example. And you'll still have to handle information securely.
But other "rules" may need to change, such as dress codes, working hours, and tolerance of unexpected interruptions! More than ever, clarity around expectations – for everyone – is key.
Our article, Working From Home, has practical advice about staying productive and professional while also looking after your personal needs.
Professionalism involves consistently achieving high standards, both in the work you do and the way you behave.
Being professional helps you to achieve high-quality results, while impressing and inspiring others – and feeling good about yourself.
The eight core characteristics of professionalism are: Competence, Knowledge, Conscientiousness, Integrity, Respect, Emotional Intelligence, Appropriateness, and Confidence.
By finding ways to strengthen each of these attributes, you can become confident to act professionally wherever you find yourself working.
These qualities are particularly important when the normal "rules" of professionalism are blurred, such as when you’re working from home.
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