Maybe we need to focus less on “professionalism”

Let's abandon professionalism

Last night, my good friend sent me this story from The New York Times about the Kleiner Perkins discrimination lawsuit that’s ongoing. I had been following the story, but not really — as in, I was aware it was happening and the basics of it, but I wasn’t reading up on it every day or anything like that. I read the NYT link and this morning, I sat down and wrote back this e-mail below to her:

Yea … the entire thing is a train wreck on multiple levels. I do love how the first quote in this article is from a psychology professor at UW and within about five words, she manages to say “… lean in…” The root of all this shit goes back to how parents and grandparents explain the idea of work to people as they grow up. Everyone tries to draw this harsh line between how you work and how you live your regular life (“professionalism”) and that’s actually stupid. Just because you’re in a cubicle or in front of a classroom or whatever doesn’t mean the type of person you inherently are changes. Like, managers are terrified of coming off as being “friends” with their employees, so they go the other way and almost autocratically distance themselves from their employees. Then the employee lacks training, resources, a sense of purpose in the work, etc. That’s a clusterfuck. And then we create this world where everyone is always meeting about everything, and the employees don’t have real relationships with their managers, right? So the employees want to get heard, so they talk louder and say more shit in the meetings. “Interruption-based culture.” None of this should surprise people. It’s all common sense. If a baby isn’t getting attention from its parents and it’s pre-verbal, the baby cries. That’s the same shit that happens in meetings around the world every second, except the crying is replaced by someone saying, “… well, we’re teaching from the binders, and we’re not getting results!”

Basically if people thought of work as “These are people I need to deal with, I’ll treat them well and we’ll work together on some shit and have fun” instead of this rigid Puritanical professionalism stuff, everyone would be a lot happier. That’s my two cents. Think of how many jobs I probably got rejected for because people think I’m slower or dumber or whatever. Now think how potentially delightful I could have made those office cultures. That huge disconnect comes from people’s abject focus on “professionalism.” I’m not saying people should go into work and take a shit on the floor or punch their co-workers, but work doesn’t allow people to be the people they are — it forces them to be someone else, and then when issues like this Kleiner Perkins case come up, we all breathlessly analyze every aspect of it. When you put a person in a box, the person tries to get out of the box. It’s that simple.

Assuming you read that, the binders joke at the end of Paragraph 1 is something between me and her. You could insert any generic meeting comment in there if you’d like.

Before I wrote this e-mail, I didn’t really know I felt that way — but apparently I do. I understand there needs to be a basic line of professional code of conduct in terms of dress and behavior, and I’m fine calling that “professionalism.” But do you ever think the over-focus on “professionalism” kind of ruins the idea of “work” as a whole, because it doesn’t let people be themselves? Phrased another way, think of this: the guy who runs the company that changed how the modern world interacts? He mostly wears jeans and sweatshirt to speak to people. Right?

Some of this rolls up with another idea I’ve talked about: view work as a neighborhood, not “a family.” With your neighbors, you behave in a baseline civil way — but if there’s a cookout or something, you might let a few off-color jokes fly or whatever. The entire connotation of “family” is so fraught with how you have to behave and why and who might respond the wrong way — if your brain is associating work as “family,” you’re going to be a hot mess. (And skate on certain projects, because families skate on things for each other all the time and then use the rationalization of “Well, we’re family!”)

Anyway, I realize “professionalism” is super important to most people — especially HR and hiring managers — so this was a dumb post. But if you have any thoughts, leave ’em.

Ted Bauer