We all know that some of the most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders are notoriously difficult to work with — and work for — given their large personalities and perfectionist tendencies. That might give the impression that simple professionalism is an outdated concept. After all, didn’t these guys get to the top in part by not playing well with others?
An uncompromising, take-no-prisoners approach might work well for a few visionaries. But on the off-chance that you’re not one of them, unprofessional behavior can undermine your relationships with colleagues — and limit your career.
Why employers demand professionalism
Professionalism is important for many reasons. Time spent accommodating a colleague’s prickly ego or ever-changing moods is time taken away from working toward a common goal. As customer service has become the critical differentiator for so many businesses, the ability to treat customers and clients with tact and courtesy has become indispensable. And, of course, almost everyone simply prefers working with people who make them feel respected.
Despite its value, professionalism is far from universal. That means you can set yourself apart from the competition by adhering to a professional code of conduct, especially if you’re relatively new to the workforce.
What professionalism entails
Most of us can easily call up vivid examples of unprofessional behavior, from dishonesty to chronic lateness to the entire final hour of last year’s holiday party. Defining professionalism is a little trickier. While there may be no universally accepted definition, most employers and employees would agree on its core components. Here are seven key elements of professionalism.
1. Accountability. When something goes wrong, do you immediately look for ways to avoid blame or for ways to correct the problem? Taking responsibility for a mistake — and then learning from it — might be the most reliable mark of a true professional.
2. Consideration. True professionals tend to be aware of how their work and behavior affects everyone around them. Small courtesies such as letting colleagues know in advance when you’ll be unavailable can make a big difference in the team’s overall performance.
3. Humility. If you’re unsure how to best perform a task, do you ask for help or plow forward? If you’re too proud to take direction or criticism, you’re putting pride ahead of the good of the team and the health of your career.
4. Communication. Avoiding comments that make others uncomfortable or undervalued is a prerequisite, of course, but true professionals also grasp many subtler aspects of communication. For example, when you provide feedback, are you careful to do it in a way that will be helpful rather than belittling? Do you listen to input from others even when you think you know best?
5. Tidiness. The effect of your personal choices on others extends to the clothes you wear. A suit and tie don’t make you a professional. But taking care to dress appropriately for your workplace conveys that you’re attuned to your environment and that you respect the job and the people around you. It’s also a matter of self-interest, since employers say that clothing choices affect promotion prospects.
6. Kindness. Approaching others with patience and respect for their perspective enables constructive criticism and stronger collaboration. When in doubt, fall back on the old standby: Treat others as you’d like to be treated.
7. Consistency. Professionalism is easiest to measure when things aren’t going well — when you’ve done subpar work, miscommunicated with a co-worker or when clients or colleagues are behaving unprofessionally. Under duress, do you treat people with the same respect as you do when everything’s clicking? True professionals aren’t necessarily less emotional than other workers, but they are less likely to let those emotions lead to outbursts and other knee-jerk reactions.
Practice makes professional
Like every skill worth having, professionalism takes plenty of practice to perfect. The more you put its principles into action — and catch yourself when you fall short — the more it will become an instinctive sense that guides your behavior, rather than a code you have to consult. Professionalism might not make you the next ornery billionaire, but it will accelerate your progress toward your career goals, whatever they may be.
Robert Half is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at www.roberthalf.com/bloopers or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.