3 Steps to a Professional Environment

“Professionalism is not a label you give yourself. It’s a description you hope others apply to you.”
David Maister, author “True Professionalism”


Professional Work EnvironmentIf you have a brown, weed-filled lawn and want a lush, green, weed-free lawn instead, you have to do more than chop off the tops of the weeds. You have to get down to the roots of those weeds. You have to pull them out or kill them off. And THEN you have to go about the task of re-seeding, fertilizing, and watering your new lawn at the same time you prevent the weeds from coming back.

In a similar sense, that’s how you create a positive professional work environment.

 Step #1: Establish the rules of professionalism.

You’ve probably heard a manager say, “Every employee of mine should know what’s expected of him. I shouldn’t have to spend my time spelling it out.”

Oh yes you do! You can’t practice “Management By Mind Reading” and expect your people to automatically “get” it. In today’s diverse world of work, your employees may come from very different cultures and backgrounds. So it’s foolish to assume they know how you define right and wrong, good and bad, and professional versus nonprofessional behavior.

The simple truth is … if you don’t tell people exactly what you want them to know and do, they are going to guess. And oftentimes they guess wrong.

You’ve got to adopt some written policies, procedures, and codes of conduct so everyone understands the “rules” of professionalism.

I suppose that’s why someone put together the silly “Redneck Book of Manners.” Some of the “rules” included:

  • When dining out, avoid throwing bones and food scraps on the floor as the restaurant may not have dogs.
  • When entertaining, the centerpiece for your the table should never be anything prepared by a taxidermist.
  • When it comes to personal hygiene, the proper use of toiletries can forestall bathing for several days. 
  • When it comes to weddings, kissing the bride for more than 5 seconds may get you shot.
  • When it comes to driving and approaching a 4-way stop, the vehicle with the largest tires always has the right of way.

On the more serious side, many managers and many organizations fall short of the mark when it comes to establishing clear, explicit, and comprehensive guidelines for professional behavior. As playwright Judith Wagner put it, “I always wanted to BE somebody. But I see now I should have been more specific.”

If you don’t take the time to establish the rules of professionalism for your organization, you’re going to take even more time resolving the inevitable conflicts that will arise amongst you and your people and your customers.

Step #2: Teach the rules of professionalism.

In other words, you have to give every employee an opportunity to learn your organization’s guiding principles for professional behavior. And you have to give people an opportunity to ask questions and get firsthand guidance on how they should apply the rules to their work situations.

You could teach the rules informally … through conversation over a cup of coffee. Perhaps you’re trying to teach people what to say or not to say to another colleague when they’re upset. As Dorothy Nevill, an English writer, put it, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

You could teach the rules during a coaching session. That’s what I do when I hire new employees. I let them know right off the bat what really bothers me and one of my pet peeves is procrastination. If somebody promises me something for Friday, I expect it to be there on Friday. Same thing goes for punctuality. If someone says he’ll be to work at 9:00 a.m., I expect them to be there by 9:00 a.m. at the latest.

You could teach the rules through a discussion at a team meeting. Business owner Mike McKinely did that with his employees when he taught the following rule of professionalism. “Instead of looking around at work and seeing problems, choose to see situations that could be improved, issues that could be resolved, and concerns that could be remedied–and volunteer to help fix ’em.”

Or you could teach the rules through an uplifting educational workshop. That’s what I do in my program called “Staying Up In A Down World: How To Build A Workplace Filled With Excellence And Enthusiasm.” William Scott, a supervising engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, says: “This program was the most rewarding learning experience I’ve had in over 20 years working as an Air Force professional engineer and leader. Truly the best of the best!”

(Click here if you’d like to get an outline of the program. Or give us a call if you’d like to discuss the possibility of offering this program at one of your upcoming meetings.)

Step #3: Reinforce the rules of professionalism.

Some leaders believe that “no news is good news.” In other words, they tell their team members, “If I don’t say anything, you can presume everything is okay.”

Well, employees DON’T think that way. At the very best, when employees don’t get any feedback on their behavior, they think their boss doesn’t care. And in the very worst case, some employees think that “no news means they’re gathering evidence to use against me.”

The fact is … leaders need to say something complimentary and reinforcing when they see their teammates exhibiting professional behavior. And leaders need to interject some kind of correction when they see inappropriate nonprofessional behavior.

What about your lawn or work environment? Is it filled with weeds and nonprofessional behavior? Or is it healthy and growing just the way you want it to? With these three steps, you CAN create a professional work environment.


List three things you are doing now or will do this week to reinforce professionalism in your organization.