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Do you have to act "professional" to be a professional?

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"You have to separate your work life from your professional life."

"You can't talk like that at work. It's just not professional!"

"Jill wore a very nice pantsuit yesterday. She looked so professional."

We hear that word professional all the time. People use it to describe a person who acts how they're supposed to act, communicates how they're supposed to communicate, dresses how they're supposed to dress in the workplace. A person who uses a lot of exclamation points in his email isn't "professional". A person who wears a dress to work every day is "professional" (assuming she's a woman--a transvestite man would likely not be seen as "professional" to the arbiters of professionalism).

What in the world does the word professional mean? Well, the real definition of the word is "someone who does a job that requires special training, education, or skill : someone who is a member of a profession". And in its adjective form, it just means, "relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill". There's also some stuff about athletes who are paid. Professional is contrasted with amateur and with hobbyist. What you never see in a dictionary definition, though, is anything related to how the person talks, dresses, or acts.

So where's the disconnect? Well, I think it has to do with the idea that, in order to be good at a job, the person doing that job needs to also fit the mold of what a good corporate worker looks like. I call these mold-fitters corporobots. They look, act, and talk the same. They spout off corporate jargon left and right. They love to "circle back" and "have that conversation at that time" and deal with "metrics" and "reach out" to one another. They oppose loosening dress codes because dressing comfortably is "unprofessional". They walk really fast with notepads and iPads tucked under their arms as they race off to their next meeting, where the other professionals will judge them negatively if they show up a minute late (if only the language of business allowed them to use small words like "call" instead of "reach out" and "talk about it later" instead of "have that conversation in the future" their last meeting would have been so much shorter!). When an employee fits in with the corporate mold he's professional. When he bucks the system, he's not.

But there's something to be said for bucking the system! Every society needs its outliers, progressives, idealists, and tension-easers. The people who refuse to fit the corporobot mold are the creative ones. They are the ones who bring about change in organizations, and change is the only way organizations can survive. Without change, there is no growth, and without growth, there is only death. There is no such thing as an organization that is just standing still. It's either growing and thriving, or it's stagnant and dying.

So go ahead! Be the one to buck the corporobots. Don't settle for, "This is how we've always done it, so this is how it will be done." Be creative. Help build a culture of humanity at your workplace.

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