We assume the need to be ‘professional’ in the voluntary sector, but are our concepts of professionalism outdated, unfulfilling and ultimately unproductive in achieving the impacts we are here to achieve? Instead of a ‘professionalism’ that wedges a gap between who we really are and the role we play at work, what would enable us to ‘take off our masks’ and build work places that are ‘More Like People’?
“You must learn to always be professional. Never lose your temper, never cry, never get impatient, never get upset, never show your weakness. If you are caving under pressure, run to the bathroom. …by being emotional, you are making yourself a liability. No one wants to keep people who are flakey or break under pressure. The corporate world wants people of steel.”
This may be a somewhat extreme example, but the essence of this excerpt can be found in countless watered-down versions by Googling the phrase: “how to be professional at work”. Even in the voluntary and community sectors, we are increasingly used to a singular definition of professionalism, one that may have felt initially alien to us, but which we‘ve become increasingly accustomed to during our working lives. Unfortunately, the old rules of thumb around how one should behave in a working environment often have significant negative repercussions, fostering tension between colleagues and erecting barriers between the ‘professionals’ and those an organisation exists to support.
- How to dress (‘business casual’, ‘formal’)
- How to speak (Queen’s English)
- Dining and drinking etiquette (table manners, ‘who pays’)
- Behavioural guidelines (non-emotional, minimally opinionated)
I recently heard Jon Rouse, Chief Executive of Croydon Council describe these kinds of ‘tips’ as the basis of ‘the Cult of Professionalism’. This ‘cult’, he said, is guided by an incredibly narrow set of mostly unspoken norms, which strip away some of the core principles that make us human; traits like empathy, emotion, individualism and opinion. While becoming ‘professional’, we separate ourselves from the vast majority of other people in the world, behaving – and often thinking (while at work, at least) – in ways that seem unimaginable and often highly suspect, to people who exist outside of this constructed reality. But unlike the cults of Scientology or Freemasonry, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is often fluid – a membership which many of us will pass in-and-out of at different times in our working lives, rather than committing to permanently.
Essentially though, this model of ‘professionalism’ pushes those who accept it to compartmentalise their lives (to varying degrees), to fit its rigid criteria. ‘From nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, I am a ‘professional’. During evenings and weekends, I might be a new father, a scout leader, a revolutionary Marxist, an alcoholic, a BNP member, a choir leader, a beekeeper…’.
- Closeted racism may slip into hiring practices;
- Problems in a personal relationship may start to taint interactions with colleagues;
- Nights spent awake with a crying baby may make it harder to focus on work.
- Previous experience in a gang may give new insights into staff motivation and management;
- Being a parent of teenagers may provide an awareness of the attitudes of younger staff;
- A mate might be able to help with a piece of work that the team has been stuck on for some time…
So I would argue that ‘siloing’ ourselves (‘the professional’ and ‘everything else in our lives’) is neither sustainable, nor desirable. The loss of basic human characteristics that so often occurs when we allow only a limited piece of ourselves to show over a significant period of time can limit or damage the relationships we are able to build in our working lives. And whether in the corporate world, or that of palliative care, good relationships are increasingly recognised as crucial to (relative) success in the workplace.
But such things only happen in the corporate world!
Though the Cult tends to be most associated with the civil service and the financial sector, one does not have to look far to see the growing prevalence of corporate influence in civil society organisations. Whether as ‘value for money’ audits (as opposed to value for impact), public contract culture (‘we’ve got to compete with bids by private companies’), or Social Return on Investment (and its attempts to convert human stories into cash sums), there are many examples of the values which have traditionally underpinned our sector, being subtly undermined by more bottom-line-orientated approaches.
As may have been expected, the cultures associated with those practices in the private sector have gradually begun to foment themselves in the working cultures of various larger voluntary organisations. This is clearly more immediately problematic when staff are engaging with victims of abuse or ex-offenders, than if they are simply trading stocks in the City. Impersonal and sterile policies against ‘hugging’, ‘personal relationships in the workplace’ and a range of other basically human activities, send a clear message that the ‘professionalism’ an employer desires, is one which checks many of your personal characteristics at the door; not all that far from the quotation I begun the blog with…
So what do we do about it?
This is not an easy one and I don’t pretend to have clear answers, as our entrenched attitudes are not easily re-shaped. That said I have a couple of ideas that might be worth thinking about if you’ve experienced some of these issues in your organisation.
Push the professional comfort zone
Most of us would find it much harder to be ‘professional’ (in the narrowest sense) if our regular working environment was radically changed. Jon Rouse at Croydon Council implemented such a change via direct interactions between senior council officers and local people who had felt hurt or oppressed by the council services they had received. This was not to necessarily validate every negative experience as a fair indictment of the council, but to give people who rarely saw the frontline impacts of their decisions, a first-hand glimpse into what it would have felt like to have a child taken into care, or to be unable to visit a loved-one while they were in the hospital. The officers were not there to defend the choices made by the council, only to better understand the feelings of those on the other end of those choices – encouraging a sense of empathy with their experiences. Rouse described the process as intensely emotional for many, but one which shifted the perspectives of many of those from the council who were involved, helping them to better appreciate the difficulties social services could unwittingly create in people’s lives, and how these might be mitigated from the policy level. It’s hard to maintain a narrowly professional persona, when confronted directly with firsthand human suffering, especially if there’s even a minute possibility that something you did or didn’t do, may have played some role in allowing that suffering to happen.
Trust staff’ judgment – don’t always try to regulate it
I just read an advice piece in Third Sector on dealing with staff who are in relationships together. It was based on the premise that something bad would probably happen as a result of a romantic relationship and that a policy for such matters was needed… Wait! A policy? To prevent heartbreak? To tell staff not to let their heartbreak show at work? To tell them not to have personal feelings for colleagues at all? There’s no question that there can sometimes be messy elements to workplace relationships, but nothing you can regulate will prevent these from occurring. With that said, most of the time they don’t, but our responses often assume the worst before having reason to do so. Why not congratulate them on their happiness and address any issues individually, if they do happen to become issues?
This ties into some fairly key ideas of human institutions, challenging the assumption of the worst (‘left unregulated, people will do wrong’) that often underpins organisational planning efforts and policies. Regulation should be a last-resort, rather than a knee-jerk response to organisational dilemmas. Humans are remarkable when it comes to addressing issues as they arise!
Make yourself a bit vulnerable
I have only gut-instinct and a limited mix of personal and professional experiences on which to base this, but feel strongly that ‘conscious vulnerability’ is an important step to breaking-through the ‘Cult of Professionalism’.
As we’re rarely used to expressing anything resembling emotion in the workplace, this is a difficult challenge for most of us, especially as working relationships can be subtly competitive, or even adversarial. In this context, becoming consciously vulnerable can feel like a death sentence, however, it may be the olive branch that begins to shift a working culture towards something more genuinely mutually beneficial. There’s no guarantee of success, and a bad experience may not be an easy one, but without risk, we omit the possibility of change…
Conscious vulnerability breeds trust, through the implicit acknowledgment that you have given someone the opportunity to hurt you, on the assumption they won’t. So if you ask for the help of someone of a lower rank, but with particularly relevant experience, or admit that a decision you made was a mistake, it may start to change the ways people relate to you and to each other. By modelling little changes and demonstrating trust in those you work with, it may very well encourage others to follow suit.
When we cut-off our own emotions (conforming to the spoken-and-unspoken expectations of the Cult), we often simultaneously limit our ability to empathise with the emotions of others. Empathy is another key idea in my human institutions work, and one that Jeremy Rifkin talks about in the context of “re-thinking our institutions in society to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation”. A bit abstract, I know, but an important bit of grounding for some of the bigger picture changes that our collective behaviours can gradually start to shape…
Have you broken free of the Cult?
As mentioned earlier, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is far from all-encompassing and elicits different commitment from each of us at different times. Very few people bring the Cult into every aspect of their lives, as we would immediately find it limiting to our ability to form meaningful relationships and get any real sense of satisfaction from the world. But many of us, understandably, take on bits of it, as it suits us, when we are in a working environment where it is the norm. Sometimes it’s easier to refer a member or client to a policy, rather than unpick the details of their concern; sometimes admitting we don’t know something might seem to jeopardise our job or reputation; sometimes the issues we face in voluntary and community sector can feel too difficult to acknowledge our own feelings about…
So I’d really like to hear about when you have:
- Been able to model an alternative
- Bucked the office trend and acted in a way that truly expressed empathy with either your colleagues or those your organisation exists to serve
- Openly admitted your weaknesses to those you work with
- Refused to use a new bit of in-crowd jargon
- Given honest (if unpopular) opinions to managers
- Allowed yourself to ‘just be yourself’ at work