Code, culture, and cognizance
Imagine a man in a Brioni suit and silk tie. Now visualize a woman wearing a Chanel ensemble and a strand of freshwater pearls. Both evoke a professional image. But what if the man in the suit had bad breath and mal genio to match? And what if the woman wore scuffed-up stilettos and gossiped about the CEO’s husband in the break room? Would you still describe either one of them as professional?
It takes more than nice clothing to pull off professionalism. First impressions are formed within seconds and start with one’s physical appearance, but it’s other details like hygiene, disposition, and other elements of style that actually play bigger roles in conveying a positive professional image.
What a positive professional image is, as of late, seems to generally mystify people entering the labor market. American pop culture increasingly drives fashion, music, and other trends, even attitude, and young adults – and some not-so-young adults – think some of these pop trends are de rigueur for the office. Although Ed Hardy t-shirts and bedhead may pass in casual work environments, they’re definitely not up to code in a more conservative setting, like a bank or law office, especially if job retention or advancement in the company is an aspiration.
To convey a positive image in the workplace, one needs to consider the whole professional package, not just the pricey garments waiting at the drycleaners. Disposition, personal hygiene, and a few other details also need to be taken into account. This process of self-presentation or “impression management” is a way of controlling responses from others. In other words, you consciously, or even unconsciously, influence others to perceive you in a certain way by the way you dress, speak and take care of yourself, and by what you share or don’t share in a business setting.
Professor Laura Morgan Roberts of the Harvard Business School says that a professional image is “the set of qualities and characteristics that represent perceptions of your competence and character as judged by your key constituents (i.e., clients, superiors, subordinates, colleagues).” And in order to create a positive professional image, impression management must do two things: build credibility and maintain authenticity.
Achieving credibility and authenticity in the business world can be tricky. What if you don’t agree with your boss’s politics? Do you keep your opinions to yourself or take a chance and hop on your soapbox? And how much are you willing to sacrifice of your personal values to gain professional footing? It’s a balancing act of negotiation and compromise that is the underlying foundation of your professional image. If you and an important client disagree on Rush Limbaugh’s antics, it’s probably best not to bring up the subject, but if you feel it’s important to establish a recycling policy in the office, vocalizing it to the VP may actually work in your favor. The latter example can be referred to as positive distinctiveness, a term Roberts uses to define the use of “verbal and nonverbal clues to claim aspects of your identity” that will illuminate your character in a positive light.
The opposite of positive distinctiveness would be social recategorization, or deliberate omission of information to maintain a positive professional image. You may want to refrain from saying how much you like or dislike Limbaugh so as not to offend your client, or not tell your teetotaling colleagues about how tomados you and your buddies were at the bar last night. Or let’s say the head of sales has no qualms about stretching the truth about the company’s financial stats, yet you have strong feelings about honesty but don’t express your opinion so as not to draw attention to your differences. Roberts says this “minimization or avoidance” strategy is one way of conforming to the workplace culture.
But wait a minute. What if your jefe is the one bragging up his imbibing exploits to the whole art department? Then can you impart similar tales? This is where company culture can help you determine what is and isn’t appropriate to share at work and how your professional image needs to conform to the office environment. Work for Google, for example, and it’s likely you can speak freely with your coworkers, but if you work in the mayor’s office, discussions would need to be much more conventional. Keep in mind that you want to maintain your professionalism in work-related social and after-hours events, too.
What you disclose at work to manage your professional image is one element, and how you express yourself through acts of compassion or consideration is another. The CEO who never speaks to the staff and holes up in his or her office all day garners little professional respect compared to the president who greets everyone each morning. “Good etiquette goes a long way,” says Monica Mavis, an HR professional for over 22 years who has worked for a national business with 15,000 employees across 27 states. Mavis deals with executive management and can speak from experience when she says simple courtesy is much more professional than pomposity or rudeness. If you act in a civilized, polite manner, you’re more likely to be revered by those around you.
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