“Professionalism” – what is it?!

Do we know it when we see it?

Have you ever heard or uttered these phrases?

“Joe is such a professional, isn’t he?”
“I want Sally off my team.  She’s not professional.”
“Nitesh, let’s discuss your lack of professionalism.”
“Sofia, I am impressed with how professionally you handled that situation.  Well done.”

How often do we use this term – professional?  I hear it every day.  Lately, I find myself asking “what does it mean exactly?”

Search the definition for this word and its variations, like profession and professionalism, and you’ll find they reference specific vocations like engineering, accounting, doctoring, and lawyering.  But, don’t we use these terms in a much broader sense in our day-to-day interactions?

The definitions aren’t a great help, so what if we take a different angle and explore what it looks like when someone is being professional?  For example, what exactly was Joe or Sofia doing that was so professional?

When I reflect back on people I thought were professional, I see those who really had their act together.  Those people knew how to manage themselves in any situation.  They were great with other people, one-on-one and in groups.  They carried the flag for their organizations, and even worked to make them better.

As I consider this, the more I feel that being professional is only partly about a vocation, and mostly about making good behavioral choices across three dimensions.

To me, the three-dimensional professional is self-effective, other-effective, and organization-effective. Let me explain.

To be ­self-effective is to be self-aware and a self-manager.  To be other-effective is to manage relationships and practice civility.  To be organization-effective is to be a good fit with, and a discretionary contributor for, an organization of choice.

My view of professionalism is informed by the work of experts in fields I have studied, such as emotional intelligence (Goleman, et al), civility (Post, et al), and organizational citizenship behavior (Organ, et al).  I draw on their work to describe simple behaviors I think are required for professionalism along three dimensions:

1st dimension: Self-effective

  • Knows one’s core attitudes, values and beliefs
  • Knows one’s strengths and limits
  • Identifies and interprets one’s internal cues

A Self Manager

  •  Channels emotions into making good choices
  • Acquires knowledge, skill, resources needed for a task
  • Has the right focus, and prioritizes one’s efforts

2nd dimension: Other-effective
A Relationship Manager

  • Employs effective communication skills
  • Builds and maintains mutually beneficial relationships
  • Extends trust and is trustworthy


  • Demonstrates good etiquette
  • Treats others with respect
  • Practices altruism

3rd dimension: Organization-effective
A Fit

  • Has the required knowledge and skills for the job
  • Believes in the mission and vision of the organization
  • Conforms to organization’s values, rules and norms

A Contributor

  • Delivers on stated objectives and goals
  • Demonstrates discretionary effort for company gain

In what organization do these behaviors apply?  I think the answer is easy.  All organizations need professionals.

Certainly, the achievement of success for any organization requires, in large part, members who know what they bring to the table and do, work well with others, and who contribute to the mission.  One definition from Dictionary.com offers that an organization is “a group of persons organized for some end or work; association.”  To me, this puts an organization on a spectrum ranging from recreational sports team to multi-billion dollar corporation.

I don’t know if there is a dimensional hierarchy, but it seems intuitive that being professional begins with the first dimension and ends with the third.  It also seems likely that one could check all the boxes in the first two, but not the third, depending on the organization.  In the end, professionalism may look and feel different from one organization to the next.  For this reason, I believe that a three-dimensional view of professionalism may be useful in informing the practices for attracting and managing talent for an organization.  The first question to answer may be, what does professionalism look like for us?

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