What It Means to Be Professional And What to Do When Someone Is Not

I sometimes find myself getting frustrated when someone I work with is lacking in professional decorum. They may not meet a deadline we agreed upon, or they may not dress or act in a way which I would consider common sense in the workplace. From the Six Stages of Professional Maturity I described in my last article, I want to single out the second stage: Consummate Professional. Let’s dig deeper to define what it means to be professional and what to do when people are not.

Group of people sitting in a meeting room and being distracted by their smartphones

First, let us approach the subject with a certain level of humility. After all, we too can improve our level of professionalism. Moreover, we had to develop these skills early on in our careers as well. Someone had to lead us, and maybe push us, to the next level. So when we are assessing people in this area, I hope we are not condescending—even in our own thoughts about them.

Let us also approach the matter with a reasonable level of expectation for the people we lead. I do not want to waste my energy on addressing basic professional skills with those who work closely with me. In fact, I expect higher levels of professionalism from them than I do from others.

As you read through this list, you may think “of course, this is basic stuff.” But the reason I am defining these points for us as leaders is to be very clear about our expectations and what to do when they are unmet. For example, being polite may be a standard expectation. But many people are not. When someone I meet or interview is not polite, regardless of the status they have achieved, I see big red flags. This is not acceptable. So my inclination is to steer clear of this person, not to correct or react. In this case, my focus is not to right the wrong around me. Rather, it is my responsibility to carefully select whom I work with.

Here is a list that defines professionalism. It is a great place to start if you want to print it and discuss it with your team. Have a conversation with them as a group or individually about each item.

What It Means to be Professional

  • Be polite. Be cordial with everyone all the time. Anything less than polite is unacceptable.
  • Pay attention to the culture. What are the norms for the organization? A true professional will notice, defer to, and contribute to the cultural expectations for the organization. Twitter_logo_blue Those who want to do “their own thing” miss the professional mark.
  • Take work seriously. Get the job done which has been entrusted to you. When we are being paid for our time, we must give 100% of our effort.
  • Honor deadlines.  Meet deadlines. Always. In the event work isn’t getting done on time, or when there are problems with a project, speak up and let key people know.
  • Receive feedback objectively. We must realize that receiving feedback on our work—even critical feedback—is part of the job; it’s not personal.
  • Communicate well. Learn to write and speak clearly.
  • Be flexible. Be willing to do things on occasion that may not be convenient to you, but add value to a project or to the team.
  • Be willing to go the second mile. Don’t lock yourself into thinking you are only willing to fulfill your job description. If we do this, we will lock ourselves into our current positions, or maybe even lose the position we have. Be certain, meeting the minimum requirements will not advance your career. Twitter_logo_blue
  • Be reliable. Show up on time. Don’t make a habit of calling in sick, when really, you can show up and do your work.
  • Communicate well. Return phone calls, emails, and texts. Reach out to others to let them know how projects are progressing. Good communication eases tension and resolves many problems before they begin to fester.
  • Use your manners. Say Please, Thank you, and I’m sorry when needed. I once heard a person  say, “When I come in in the morning, I just can’t speak for 10 to 15 minutes. It takes me a while to crank up.” That’s not professional or kind. When you come in in the morning, say “Good morning.”
  • Be positive. Keep a smile on your face and a gentle attitude in your heart regardless of what personal crisis you maybe going through outside of work.

What to Do When Someone You Lead is Unprofessional

Unprofessionalism is contagious. Here is how I deal with it among the people I lead.

  • Don’t lose your cool. Losing our cool only shows our lack of emotional maturity. Remember that losing our temper starts in our mind with our thoughts. So monitor your thinking when dealing with a lack of professional decorum.
  • Don’t judge. Great leaders don’t look down on people. We all behave in ways that reflect where we are on our personal journey. Most of the time, the way people treat us is how they treat everyone else. It is not personal when they are lacking in professionalism. Try to help them if you can, then make a decision how to handle it if they continue to be unprofessional.
  • Review your processes. If you hire someone who proves to be unprofessional, stop and figure out what you missed in the interview process so you don’t do that again.
  • Address undesirable behavior. Don’t ignore unprofessionalism. At the right time, confront it. When possible, I prefer talking to people in the morning before any of us are emotional from the stresses of the day. Bring up problems clearly, but gently. Have mercy on people; don’t be a tyrant. Treat them like you would want to be treated, like a loving parent would address their child, not like a slave master berating their servant. Talk to them once a problem is detected, not after you have been stewing on it for months.
  • Don’t keep them on board. I only want to work with people who understand at least a minimal level of professional behavior. Even then, I expect them to grow and mature. Otherwise they waste my time and emotional energy—and everyone else’s as well. They cause my team to struggle. And that’s just not acceptable.
  • Look for improvement. Expect improvement in this basic skill set. Remember, by helping people become more professional, you are not just helping your team, you are also helping the individual to grow. They will appreciate that you are giving them your attention in this area.

I hope we are ready as leaders to deal with all sorts of unprofessional behaviors. Regardless of their professional level, remember it is an honor to lead people, not a burden.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

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For Further Reading:

The Six Stages of Professional Maturity
When Someone Drops the Ball

3 Comments
  • The Six Stages of Professional Maturity - Wes MD
    Posted at 11:53h, 15 April Reply

    […] we must practice basic professional skills. In my next article, I will further define professionalism and how to pre-plan our response when someone falls short […]

  • Tracie Fleming
    Posted at 22:33h, 17 April Reply

    Great information! Thx Dr. W!

    • Wes Saade
      Posted at 00:48h, 19 April Reply

      Thank you Tracie! Wes

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