'Professionalism' versus 'Authentic Self-Expression'

I started my career in a law firm, where, as is often the case for impressionable graduates in high powered places, I was quickly moulded into the corporate killing machine I needed to be in order to ‘earn my keep’ (and earn the equity partners’ keep, too). I even, eventually, ironed out my exuberant mane of curls and adopted a chemically induced Uma-Thurman-In-Pulp-Fiction black bob, to go along with my new persona of “I have all of my shit together. Try best me at your peril.” Which is quite something for a 24 year old.

It was there that I learnt what it meant to be professional. There are all of the usual things - 'know your stuff', 'be on time', 'drive your matters', 'don’t say shit to the clients' - and then there were all the other things that were, perhaps, less obvious but definitely there, like ‘always look fantastic’, ‘don’t complain when you receive the privilege of a 16 hour work day for weeks at a time’, and ‘for godssake, no crying, and if you have to, do that in the toilets where no one can see you’ … in other words, professional also became synonymous with ‘have no human moments’.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in an entirely different situation: I was sans husband, home or career, studying art therapy with a bunch of (mostly) middle-aged hippies and housewives. This was a subject that required you to operate from the heart, not the head; one that specifically by-passes the cognitive in favour of the unconscious mind. In short: your truest you has nowhere to hide. In extra short: shit got real.

I joke about it, but I couldn’t have asked for a better life-twist for myself than all of those horrifically human moments that made me end up there, learning how to be a genuine person. Learning how to make space for other people to be genuine people. Learning how to not be ashamed for being so human, and not as machine as I thought I needed to be in order to succeed in my work.         

Fast forward a few years more, and I found myself back in the corporate environment, unable to undo all of the self-acceptance that I had painstakingly won… and, I admit, there were a few awkward months of frequent oversharing (I blame therapy - it’s taught me that the things I have to say are interesting and worth taking seriously) before I found my new groove of being authentically - and (mostly) appropriately - myself in the workplace.

So, let’s get back to the word ‘professional’, and its place at work.

We’ve been hearing for years that we’re moving into a ‘knowledge worker’ age - we’re past the industrial age, and the assembly line style of work, and we acknowledge that human beings Have Feelings and Want Things (and not just beanbags and pie, Simon Sinek, though I will take both).

Except, we’re still utterly ill equipped to deal with human beings behaving more like, well, human beingsin the workplace. We don’t like passionate people when they’re toopassionate. We don’t like the steady, reliable sorts when they’re toochange resistant. We don’t like the naysayers when they do exactly what it says on the box, and tell us how things are broken. We don’t know what to do when the person struggling with their home life gets less productive or more volatile. We don’t know how to care about people - “Can I care? Where’s the line? How much is too much? Am I getting to close? Will I still be taken seriously by my staff if I care about them?” For heaven’s sake, we still haven’t figured out how to have the “You need to do something about your body odour,” conversation well.

I’d posit (and I do posit, because that’s what ex-lawyers are wont to do) that:

  1. We are human beings, first and foremost, and workers, second.

  2. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that people can adequately suspend who they are for eight hours or more a day, just so everyone else doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable. We are not machines.

  3. On that basis, and if we want to get the best out of people: We absolutely have to get competent at having real, respectful and realistic discussions  about the human side of things - about the impact of ‘someone as a person’ on ‘me as a person’ or ‘the team as people’; conversations where we own our own values and our own limited paradigms and our own flawed natures, rather than seeing someone else's approach as the sole issue.

  4. We need to split out someone’s ability to perform the requirements of the role (that is, their professionalism) and someone’s persona. I still see too many popularity contests turning up in organisations around performance review time. 

  5. We need to stop celebrating (implicitly or otherwise) the traditional 'not human' human that we wanted people to be at work, and create space for a diversity of styles to emerge… that is, create space where someone can produce great work in the way and style that's authentic to them, rather than saying that it’s only great work if they fit within xyz box of ‘professional' behaviour along the way.

I noticed fairly early in my career that, if someone was particularly good at their job, they could get away with many things, including bullying and eccentricity. That is (and putting aside the bullying bit and focusing on the eccentricity bit), they could get away with being themselves- with wearing the things they really wanted to wear, with expressing the way they’re born to express, or even, perhaps, with swearing a bit too much (me. Still me.). One of my highlights was seeing an extraordinarily competent sixty-year-old female partner wear a sheer fuschia blouse over a black bra to work one day - she absolutely rocked it, and she knew it, too.

But I’d like to think that, actually, that luxury could exist separate to one’s job performance: that You The Human was allowed to turn up at work in all your glory, and not spend most of your energy trying to fit into a narrowly confined box of ‘acceptable behaviour’ or 'acceptable conversation', and only ending up with some energy left over to do your work. I'm not suggesting that all standards go out the window, of course, only that we move a little further along the spectrum of what 'normal at work' could be on the basis of how humans actually operate... For example, perhaps it could become normal to ask for a hug if you needed one, and normal for someone to say yes or no as felt right to them. Perhaps it could become normal to appoint a Chief Dissenter to every team rather than hating the person who naturally assumes that role, so that we all got the benefit of being challenged more frequently. Perhaps it could become normal to have conversations about how fulfilled or otherwise someone felt in their life, and the role that work played in their sense of purpose.

I think that all of this comes back down to accepting that people are different (radically different, even) to you, but being intentional about creating a space where they can be themselves anyway, because - somewhere past your instinctive experience of discomfort in the face of diversity - you yourself want to feel accepted for who you are, and your best self wants that for others, too. And you know that when you feel free to be yourself, some of your greatest contributions spring forth.

If you had it all your way, what would become more normal in your workplace? Or, who would you be, if you felt like it would be okay to be that person? For the record, my favourite work environment was cool with hugs, high fives, and the (not so) occasional costume.  I believe play is essential to productivity, but that's a soap box for another day.