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What Does “Being Professional” Mean, Anyway? Notes on Authenticity

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

Who is ''You at work?''

“You must unlearn the habit of being someone else or nothing at all, of imitating the voices of others and mistaking the faces of others for your own”

Hemann Hesse via the always awesome Brain Pickings

”Being Professional” vs “Being Authentic”

I’ve been noodling on the weirdness of “being professional” quite a bit recently. It’s one of those things that we know when we see it, and when we see a transgression of it, and understand that we are expected to abide by its rules. It’s also something that we, certainly in the tech industry, have fun messing with — billionaires in tee-shirts, executives on roller blades, dogs at work, electric scooters to get around the office and all that.

And it has a history of being something we should shake off, something that limits us from, in the current phrase, “bringing our whole selves to work”. In this view, it’s like a grey blanket, hiding the shining colors of our true selves, and causing us to be inauthentic, which we understand to be a bad thing.

Authenticity is tricky. I taught a workshop on the subject last year and, again, we all agreed that we recognize it when it shows up. When we are being “authentic”, our voices become stronger, the audience sits up and listens, there is a respect that the person talking is speaking their truth. It’s a good thing, and hard to get to.

Much of my practice as a coach, particularly at the exec level, ends up in one way or another, helping my clients break through the barriers of “being professional” to their authentic self. Their decisions become clearer, their communication more powerful. But they remain “professional”, their full selves being expressed within the structure of work.

It’s a balance, and a tricky one, and one which at some level we all struggle with daily.

Display Rules

A recent short article by Dr. Paul Ekman started to clarify how we might think about what’s going on here. Dr Ekman is known for, among other things, categorizing the universal facial expressions of emotions, first suggested by Charles Darwin. His post suggests that human cultures develop “display rules” which we use to modify which emotion we can show to which person, and when. In public, certain cultures will suppress some of the universal emotional responses. (He describes the difference between Japanese and American public responses to emotionally disturbing content — the Japanese masked, the Americans didn’t).

The face for surprise is always the same, whether you are an indigenous tribesman coming across a pig in a clearing, or a CEO hearing from the Board that they are “thinking about making a change in leadership”. The tribesman won’t feel the need to suppress the face. The CEO might (whether he or she can or not is a different matter altogether).

Your Professional Persona — “You at Work”

So let’s posit that “professional” is like a set of “display rules”, and “being professional” means adopting a persona for yourself that adheres, more or less, to those rules. When you wake up, brush your teeth and make breakfast, you aren’t wearing your “professional persona”. As you approach the office, maybe sit on the bus, get the Uber, you begin to put it on, and as you badge in, it becomes your costume. You are wearing the persona of “you at work”.

“You at work” understands that some behaviors are accepted, some are celebrated, and some frowned upon (and frowning does seem to be universally allowed in the “professional rules”). Some of these are basic: when you show up, how long you’re there, what you wear, how you smell (good!), how much noise you make (not much!).

Some, are deeper, more fundamental. In Paul Ekman’s terms, “you at work” uses a set of “display rules” to govern emotional expression. Some emotional expression is “professional”, some is definitely not.

The authenticity question becomes how much of yourself can you express whilst remaining acceptably inside those rules? And how skillfully can you do it?

Becoming conscious of the rules is a good first step.

The Rules of “You At Work” (An Incomplete, and Personal, List)

The stakes are high: You and everyone else are at work to earn your livelihood. So underlying everything that happens at work is the understanding that your actions, and those of the people around you, in the end, affect how you will be in the world financially. This matters.

So a large part of “you at work” is communicating, in word and deed, that you understand the stakes. “Yes”, your work persona says. “I get it. The things we are doing have consequences. We are not playing around here”.

Work not play: ”We’re not playing around here”. How many times have you heard, or said, something like that? Play is a pretty important part of being human. How would our lives be without play? But we don’t play at work. At least, not much, and if we do, we try not to call it that. We might call it “brainstorming”, or “spitballing some architectural ideas”. But we don’t schedule a day of “team play” (well, we might, but there would be a professional goal, like increasing team cohesion, or building cross-functional relationships).

We think. We think a lot: at least in the tech industry, a whole lot of thinking goes on. We build models (of code, of designs, of markets, of finance, of process) and they provide the foundations for almost everything we do at work. “Smart” is an important word at work. A smart person comes up with and is fluent in manipulating, really useful models. A smart person is valuable. It’s interesting to contrast that with “not at work”. How important is “smart” not at work? Less so, probably.

Some emotions are OK, some are not: ”up” emotions are OK at work, as long as they remain within limits. Satisfaction, excitement — yes, absolutely. Joy? How often do you see real joy at work? Occasionally, maybe, but I bet it looked a little weird. Anger? Oh yes — it tends to be the one emotion that is allowed to be big at work. Why? Because it gets results. I don’t condone this, merely point it out.

“Down” emotions, not so much. Blew that sales call? Did you express sadness? Unlikely. Determination, sure. Irritation, definitely. Sadness? The real, true emotion you might spill later to a friend or a partner? No.

Work is not funny: the things we do at work! The things we say! We take everything so seriously, and later, in the bar, or in the kitchen, it’s can be so funny. But at work? Ever hear “boy, that was really funny!” in a meeting? Probably not.

We are careful with language: business language is notoriously obscurantist. “Right shoring”, for firing people in the US; “optimizing around certain high priority projects” for shutting down a research lab; “moving aggressively to correct deal flow” for scrambling like ants to make the quarter (feel free to recall your own favorites). We do this because the stakes are high, and we want to feel the importance of what we’re doing. And because a lot of the stuff we do is ugly and uncertain. Business doesn’t like ugliness and uncertainty, so “you at work” learns to project competence and clarity.

Aggression is generally OK, passivity is not: we are slowly learning that groups of humans work best when they are held together with empathy. But they will hold together OK if their leaders are aggressive. And OK is often good enough, at least for a while. So, aggression, not passivity. Are we passive when “not at work”? Well, some of us are. I doubt Netflix would be in business if tens of millions of us weren’t pretty passive sometimes outside of work.

Reliability is good: this is probably true for “you at work” and “you not at work”, but for “you at work” it’s pretty much a requirement. “You at work” knows to set commitments and make them. To show up at the right time, and the right place, with the right stuff. That’s how the system works.

Authenticity: Create Your Costume, Skillfully, Mindfully

Your “you at work” is shaped by the “display rules” of your environment. You get to choose the costume of “you at work” so fits the culture you work in, but is not so uncomfortable that it stifles you.

Being “authentically yourself” at work is a journey, and a tricky one. We all have parts of ourselves, some more than others, that we simply can’t bring to work. They won’t fit.

How much that is OK depends on you, where you are in life, the work you want to do, and the place you want to do it. I have been blessed by being able to work in the tech industry for decades and show up in Chuck Taylors every day of my life if I wanted to. But I also had to stuff my emotional responses to business nonsense, downplay my negative emotional states at times, and think logically through situations my intuition was screaming an answer to.

It’s a skillful balance: you have things you need to say, and do, to be yourself. You work, necessarily, within a set of rules. You get to decide how to choose the path between the two.

As always, the important thing is to be conscious: of yourself, the culture in which you work, and the choices you make as you walk into the building, again, on a weekday and become “you at work”.

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