10 Ways to be Professional

How to be Professional

While we’re on the theme of work, let me ruminate on this idea of professionalism. You’re being unprofessional is one of those phrases managers and workers like to throw around, it most definitely intended as an insult, and it is taken as one. But what do we really mean by professional, by professionalism?

When I was oodles younger I remember coming across professional in the context of sport – amateur sportsman could compete in the Olympics, professionals couldn’t – so American basketballers because they earned money, were out and most athletes were strictly amateur, in it for love and glory not money, like most people I knew who played sport religiously and devotedly Summer and Winter. Oh, yes, the world of sport has changed massively since the innocence of my youth.


So professional is about being paid for what you do. Hence a number of us who potter about in the artistic community – artists, performers and writers – don’t tend to call ourselves by those names until we have been paid. Professional is linked to money, to profession – to doing something.

My beloved Collins Compact Dictionary says: Professionn, a type of work that requires special training, such as law or medicine; the people employed in such an occupation. Professionaladj, of a profession; taking part in an activity, such as sport or music, as a means of livelihood; displaying a high level of competence or skill.

It is the latter definition, about high levels of competence and skill, or lack thereof, that links to being unprofessional. But it is too loosely applied and has come to refer essentially to actions or behaviours at work that other people simply don’t like. Accuse someone of being unprofessional and prepare to call the troops for reinforcement – yes, it is a red rag to a bull, most especially if the accusation comes from some incompetent up the food-chain.


So, lets look at how to be professional, to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism, so we can self-monitor our own performance better

1.Know what your job is – there will be a description somewhere, read it, make sure you understand what the various expectations mean. Make sure you are very clear about your rights and responsibilities and discharge them to the best of your ability.

2.Be adequately and appropriately trained – basic training is one thing but all professions are constantly changing, so go on courses, read in your area, get involved in PD. Aim to be highly skilled, an expert in your area.

3.Do your job. You’re being paid for a specific purpose and you need to do your job – so meet deadlines, chair meetings that have agendas and clear purposes, circulate memos and minutes – yes, inform and advice your team, write reports, complete all your tasks to the highest possible standard within the time frame.

4.Learn from those around you – watch your managers, how do they act, what do they do when things go wrong, how do they treat their staff, how do they interact with their managers? Note: this only works if you have good people to model from!!


5.Accept criticism and learn from it. Being professional doesn’t mean being perfect. We all fuck up from time to time, take the feedback, consider it and learn from it.

6.Apologise. Same idea – you’ll get it wrong with those you work with, be the bigger person and apologise. It helps keep relationships on an even keel, gets things done, gives you credibility and a human side.

7.Respect – for yourself, for the work you do and for your colleagues. This means simple things like saying good morning, informing people of matters that concern them. It means treating people as if they matter, as if they are important to the enterprise. They’ll work better if they feel respected and valued. It also means avoiding gossip and back-stabbing and keeping clear of office politics.

8.Manage things – budgets, clients, teams, children, your environment. Being professional is about keeping things under control, making sure things don’t go pear-shaped and when they do getting them calm and back on track as soon as you can. Often your level of professionalism is judged on your ability to manage such crises, as well as doing the basics of your job.

9.Lead by example. No matter where you are in your profession, you should aspire to be the best you can. Don’t expect others to do what you tell them if you aren’t doing it yourself. How can you expect anyone to meet deadlines if you consistently miss them? Be innovative, share your ideas, invite others to be involved in change, in decision making – let yourself be known by doing everything to the best of your ability – be a model for others to aspire to.

10.Keep your emotions under control. You should avoid crying and swearing at work – neither is good, so watch that (note to fucking self!). Work is a place for calm and considered behaviour. If you’re upset about something – be it work related or other (our life does spill over from time to time) – then try to find a way to avoid situations that will make it worse: focus on simple tasks, avoid people who push your buttons, go outside, take a walk, take deep breathes, have lunch with like minded colleagues, have a strong cup of coffee. Oh, and avoid work-place romances – they really do compromise your professionalism!


We like to think of ourselves as professional, as taking our work seriously. We want others to think well of us – that’s a very normal human desire. But to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism we need to be aware of how we comport ourselves at work. If we work with good people it is easy to do our jobs well. If we work with people who haven’t the first idea of what a professional does then we will struggle.

A professional person is highly aware of their skills set, their strengths and weaknesses – they strive to be better in what they do and, importantly, they want to make others better too. So, the next time someone utters those ghastly words – you’re being unprofessional – you’ll know the truth of the matter, won’t you? (Images from Private Collection)


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