“It’s not the job you do; it’s how you do the job.”

Last month we offered a snapshot of how Boomers (ages 50-66) and Millennials (19-30) define “professional” conduct differently. In a nutshell, Boomers see more distinction than Millennials do between how they behave at home and at work. Millennials have been brought up in an era where the lines between home and work have been increasingly blurred (thanks to, or maybe not “thanks to” but at least “because of” technology). As such, they too see less difference between the two environments and therefore less need for significantly different demeanour and attire in these two settings. 

Our take: as behaviours reflect values, the definition and evaluation of what it means for you to be ‘professional’ has to stem from you. That doesn’t mean others won’t define it as polished shoes, a good suit, and powerful demeanour, or evaluate it against shareholder returns or sales quotas, or rankings on an extensive HR list of behaviours. It just means any/all of those methods are praise-worthy if they provide insight, and hold weight against your values.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because we do not exist in a vacuum, we all need to find a way to honour our values and reflect those in our way of being, while also honouring the values of those we work with. That begins with finding out what those values are, and how they translate into behavioural norms. 

When someone says: “Drive on this side of the road”; “Walk facing on-coming traffic”; “Wash your hands;” they are telling others about the behaviours their country or society has devised to ensure the health and safety of all. Sociologists call them formal norms. These also exist in smaller sub-groups, such as companies, councils, clubs, project teams, sports teams, and so on.  Along with the formal norms comes a set of informal norms – the kind of thing you usually learn over time by trial and error – especially when you’ve contravened one.  Together, these two sets of norms constitute the expected behaviours of a group’s members.

If we deviate from formal norms (like safety procedures or traffic laws), we may put ourselves and others at risk. If we differ from informal norms in small ripple-making ways, we may be seen as merely idiosyncratic or non-conformist. If our behaviour is annoying, repetitious or wave-making, the group may dismiss our input, and reduce our influence and footing.

Yet, not everyone who contravenes a sub-group’s norm is treated the same way. A hard worker is more easily forgiven than a lazy worker; a straight-A student gets a ‘look’; the unruly one, a detention; and sometimes the boss’s favourites are promoted while the deserving are pushed aside.

Generally speaking though, a sub-group expects a newcomer to behave according to their rules, to follow their influence, and although “…it is possible for newcomers to change a sub-group’s norms, it is much more likely [the individual] will adopt the group’s norms, values and perspectives rather than the other way around.” (Hackman ‘92) 
At the end of the day, whatever your values and however you learn to translate those into behavioural norms, it seems unhelpful to think the self can be sliced into the professional/personal, for as far as we can tell, everything we do; everything that happens to anyone in this neighbourhood of seven billion plus people is personal. Why? Because it affects us as people. As human beings. We are not machines, much as we might sometimes like to pretend we are. We need to find a way for all areas of our lives to work for us – for our true selves.  When we do that, surely we are on our way to true success.

A final thought: Is it possible that too much emphasis has been placed on the distinction between and place for personal vs. professional conduct? Perhaps the bigger challenge is elsewhere.

Might the dilemma instead be our ability to discern and separate private words and behaviour from public ones?

Hackman, J.R. (1992). Group Influences on Individuals in Organizations. In M.D.Dunnette & L.M. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol. 3). Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press, 234-245. Retrieved February 10, 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norm_(social)

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