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