What does “act professionally” really mean?

I often hear new managers give their team members the advice that they should act “more professionally”. I am always curious what they specifically mean by this.

I have done it myself and been guilty of un-actionable feedback.

Here’s my take on what acting professionally means to me.

1. Pay attention to the cultural norms in your organisation, and follow them. If you watch how others in your office operate, you’ll learn all sorts of important things about “how we do things here.” For instance, you might observe that everyone shows up precisely on time for meetings (or not), that they modulate their voices when others are on the phone, and that people rely on email for non-urgent questions and speak with people for urgent answers. These are important signals for what will be expected of your own behaviour – and you’ll come across as “unprofessional” if you ignore them.

2. Be pleasant and polite to people, even if you don’t like them. You will have to work with people whom you just don’t care for (its happened to me, although now we don’t work together we are good friends), and even with people who aren’t very nice. You’ll look far more “professional” if you don’t let them get under your skin and instead remain cordial and easy to work with. This doesn’t mean compromising your personal views, it just means effect a flex in your behaviour around this person. And dont go over the top so that in acting soooo politely you reinforce to people that you dislike someone passive-aggresiveness is equally unprofessional.

3. Take work seriously. If you make a mistake or something doesn’t go well, don’t brush it off or use “unprofessional” responses like “my bad.” Accept responsibility doing things well, and equally responsibility for your part in what went wrong. Part of taking work seriously leads to…

4. Speak up when work isn’t getting done on time or when there are problems with a project. Part of taking real ownership for you work means that you’re responsible for alerting your boss when things are going off course, rather than trying to ignore it or just hoping that no one notices. You dont have to point fingers at whose at fault, but if the deadline will be missed, take responsibility for escalating this news.

5. Realise that getting feedback on your work – even critical feedback – is part of the job; it’s not personal. Getting angry or defensive or otherwise taking feedback personally when your manager gives you some can be an easy trap to fall into, but it will make you look less professional. And after all, if you care about doing your job well and advancing, don’t you want to know where you need to do better? Accept the feedback with good grace and if its useful to you incorporate it into your learning plan.

6. You need to write clearly, pithily, and professionally. That means no text speak, and correct punctuation and capitalisation, please. This doesn’t mean that you need to write as if you were addressing the President, but you do need to take care that you don’t sound like you’re texting a friend from a nightclub either. Pithy (terse and vigorously expressive) is much missed in most work documents where screeds and screeds of notes masquerades as hard work. No, the hard work isn’t in assembling the document, its in cutting it back to one page with nothing left out and noting unexplained as to why its relevant.

7. Be flexible. Yes, your workday might formally end at 5 p.m., but if staying an hour late will ensure the document goes to that important customer on time, you should do it unless that’s truly impossible. Equally, being flexible is not about workplace slavery, and that doesn’t mean to ignore important commitments in your own life, but you shouldn’t let important work go undone just because your bus is arriving soon. Similarly, be flexible when it comes to changes in work plans, goals or other things that might evolve as work progresses.

8. Show up reliably. Unless you have pre-scheduled vacation time or you’re truly ill, you should always be at work when they’re expecting you to be there. It’s not OK to call in sick because you’re hung over, or because you stayed up late last night watching football, or because you just don’t feel like coming in.

9. Be helpful, and do more than solely what’s in your job description. The way that you gain a great professional reputation – which will give you options that you can use to earn more money, get out of bad situations and not have to take the first job that comes along – is by doing more than the bare minimum required. That means always looking for ways to do your job better, helping out colleagues when you can, and not balking at new projects even though it wasn’t explained to you last year when you took the job.

10. Don’t treat your manager as your adversary. If you have even a semi-decent manager, she wants to see you do well and isn’t your enemy. But if you instead see her as someone whose job is to enforce rules, spoil your fun and make you do things you don’t want to do, it will show in your behaviour somehow– and it won’t look good. Treat your manager as a team captain, someone in authority who’s working toward the same goals as you are. (And if you’re not sure whether this is true of your manager, that’s a big red flag to pay attention to.)

So that’s my 10 tips for professionalism, and when I suggest you’re unprofessional you can ask me which one.  Have you any tips to add to this list, then please show us in the comments.

One Reply to “What does “act professionally” really mean?”

  1. I think the words loyalty and integrity deserve a seperate mention. Eventhough implied in your points, the following is not professional: talking behind someone’s back, or giving your manager the feeling that he/she doesn’t know which side you are on, or, putting your own interest before your customers’…

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