Professionalism is a powerful quality. It allows you to fulfilll your role to the best of your ability. It helps you to impress and inspire others. And it gives you a deep sense of satisfaction and self-worth.
What's more, professionalism is something that everyone can aspire to from day one of their career.
In this article, we explain what professionalism means today, and show you how to act and feel like a professional – wherever you work.
What Is Professionalism?
As the saying goes, "Professionalism is not the job you do, it's how you do the job."
Professionalism involves consistently achieving high standards, both visibly and "behind the scenes" – whatever your role or profession.
Some sectors, workplaces or roles have particular "rules" of professionalism. These may be explicit, such as an agreed dress code, or a policy for using social media. Other rules and expectations may not be written down, but they can be just as important – such as what is regarded as professional behavior at meetings, or even how people personalize their desks.
It pays to be observant, and to ask for clarification if necessary. "Fitting in" is a big part of professionalism, as it's a way to show respect, attention to detail, and a commitment to upholding agreed practices and values.
However, "being true to yourself" is just as important. True professionals don't follow rules mindlessly, and they know when and how to challenge norms. They're also flexible, and they find their own ways to do things – while still maintaining high standards.
8 Characteristics of Professionalism
What are the attributes that will mark you out as a professional? Let's look at eight key characteristics:
As a professional, you get the job done – and done well. Your abilities match the requirements of your role, and you often produce results that exceed expectations.
But you never plow on simply for the sake of appearances. Instead, your professionalism allows you to manage your own and others' expectations, and to ask for support when necessary.
Professionalism involves developing detailed, up-to-date knowledge, which is often highly specialized. At every stage of your career you can strive to master your role – and keep adding to what you know.
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It's also important to put your knowledge into action. Being professional means feeling confident to show what you know – not for self-promotion, but to help yourself and others to succeed.
Professionalism involves being reliable, setting your own high standards, and showing that you care about every aspect of your job. It's about being industrious and organized, and holding yourself accountable for your thoughts, words and actions.
But don't confuse conscientiousness with working longer hours than everyone else, or obsessing about details. True professionals plan and prioritize their work to keep it under control, and they don't let perfectionism hold them back.
Integrity is what keeps professional people true to their word. It also stops them compromising their values, even if that means taking a harder road.
Integrity is bound up with being honest – to yourself, and to the people you meet. Your beliefs and behaviors are aligned, and everyone can see that you're genuine.
Professionalism means being a role model for politeness and good manners – to everyone, not just those you need to impress.
What's more, you show that you truly respect other people by taking their needs into account, and by helping to uphold their rights.
6. Emotional Intelligence
To be a true professional you need to stay professional even under pressure. This takes strategies for managing your emotions, plus a clear awareness of other people's feelings. In short, emotional intelligence is essential.
Sometimes, professionalism means keeping your emotions in check. But at other times it's important to express your feelings, in order to have meaningful conversations or to stand up for what you believe in.
A big part of being professional is knowing what's appropriate in different situations. It avoids awkwardness or upset, boosts your credibility, and helps you to feel secure in your role.
Appropriateness relates to outward appearances, such as dress, personal grooming and body language.
But it also covers the way you speak and write, the topics you choose to discuss, and how you behave with others.
Well-founded confidence reassures and motivates other people, boosting your ability to influence and lead. It also pushes you to take on new challenges, because you don't fear damaging your professional reputation if things go wrong.
Professionalism makes you confident about what you’re doing now, but always eager to do it better and achieve more.
How to Exhibit Professionalism
Now that we've seen the qualities that set professionals apart, let's explore ways to improve in each of these eight areas.