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Professionalism | David Jackson's Biz Professionalism - David Jackson's Biz

56b03b11christeneEric Christen is a multi-faceted Award-winning British and American Designer, Artist, Inventor and Author who has lived in the UK, the USA, Japan, the Greek Islands and SE Asia. He has had his own Design Business for 6 years in San Francisco and has lectured to MA Design students on topics from as practical as Materials and Technical Drawing to academic such as Critical and Creative Thinking.  Click Here for Profile Information

What does it mean and what should it be?


I first came across this word professionalism and various definitions of it back in the 1980s, in the USA. It was a business buzzword for a decade or more, just like the word strategy has been for the past 10 years. At that time professionalism came along with another BB; politically correct, and of course, it too is open to interpretation.

Although the original meaning of professional referred to someone who got paid for doing a job, especially in an established profession such as a law, medicine, architecture or business, the meaning gradually changed. The basic meaning of professionalism became an attitude to work – that one should behave in a ‘professional way’ in the workplace. This generally means, according to the business community, looking smart, being on time, following all the rules, completing assignments, keeping busy, avoiding personal issues, maintaining a positive attitude, being compliant and unquestioning and so on. The perfect technical accessory – a kind of robot or clone!

The word was adopted by all kinds of institutions, including the world of sports, and a third definition was conferred. The word pro came into widespread use. In short, a pro is someone who performs well in his/her sport, behaves well in public, and has a great family life (or a very secret private life). A kind of idealized image/role model.

Interestingly, in Japan, workplace etiquette has been in existence for a hundred years or more, and is still practiced according to a strict military hierarchy. The top is the top and dictatorship is the norm. No discussion allowed. The workplace is a no-nonsense environment where obedience and hard work are prized above all other matters. The roots of this mentality were the ruthless world of the Japanese empire, where survival depended on a strict code of behavior. At one time a man (or woman) could have had his head chopped off for disagreeing with an official or having some petty misunderstanding with a Samuri warrior! Back in the time of Confucius in China, 2500 years ago, the hierarchical map of societies’ inter-relations was drawn, but as you can imagine, it was interpreted by various warlords to suit their needs and neither he nor his work were appreciated until much later. Anyway, most warlords or kings of that time were cruel treacherous thugs who demanded rather than earned respect, so were people seriously expected to look up to these despots? But anyway, what happens when every worker is a soldier? Is the military model suitable for the workplace? How stimulating or inspirational is such an environment?

The Reality

In reality, what was achieved by this insistence on so-called professionalism was the de-humanizing of the office-based workplace. People became so self-conscious that they started acting like programmed sheep or clones, understanding less and less, losing any initiative and creativity, and thereby doing everything by the book. The workplace manuals were often written by philistines or unworldly academics. Like most politicians they were quite detached from the everyday realities of the workplace (or anyone struggling to make a living). Further, many highly incompetent or unintelligent members of staff, managers included, hid behind a façade of professionalism. People acted more like callous machines or smart soldiers or manipulative foxes and ‘personalities’ or ‘characters’ were gradually squeezed out. Having a personality or even genuine personal problems (divorce, a death in the family, pregnancy, depression etc.) was considered unprofessional. Being human was unprofessional! If you weren’t a business clone (stamped with a permanent manic grin that passed for a smile) you didn’t fit in!

When computers became essential accessories they became another shield that disorganized or incompetent people could use to cover up their inadequacies. These charlatans welcomed computers with open arms! The most disorganized and sloppy people I have ever met were avid computer nerds. I remember an American teacher I met in Osaka. He invited me into his apartment to show me his latest computer accessory. The place – floor, bed, kitchen, bathroom and furniture – was littered with rubbish; discarded coke cans, half eaten pizzas, cigarette packets, torn books, unwashed laundry etc. Needless to say, he was not a good teacher.


Fortunately, in recent years, things have changed or are changing in first world countries – even Japan! More and more people have recognized that members of staff are not faceless commodities to be treated like paid slaves, and that in fact, in the long term, it is not good for business. The reality that happy, content and appreciated staff members are more productive has finally struck a chord in the myopic world of business.

Ironically, one of the first companies to break this ‘professional stranglehold’ was Apple, in California. Steven Jobs employed people based entirely on their knowledge of and expertise in computer software technology. He hired several hippy-like personnel, who came to work around 10 or 11 am, dressed as they wished and then did incredibly innovative work. Apple eventually completely dispensed with dress codes. Many other IT companies followed suit and now if you go to Google or Microsoft, for example, their environment is devoted to making the workplace as comfortable, inspirational and humane as possible.

In the 1990s the Japanese realized that their workplace environments were unhealthy and discouraged creativity and anyway, how long could they get away with shamelessly copying American and European products? The 12 hour workday was cut down and efforts were made to spruce up the offices, though they still lag behind the more sensitive, supportive and sophisticated work environments of the west.

Satisfying Work and Happy Environments

In conclusion, what is most significant is the quality of work that is done. This means, in short, that the staff must be first rate. Substance over appearance. Quality is not necessarily measured in academic credentials. Someone who has a master’s degree is not automatically more competent than someone who has a bachelor’s! Experience is highly critical. A few years healthy work experience is worth any MA. There is work and travel experience – both of which strongly broaden the mind. It is believed by some of the more worldly people that I have met, that 2 years of work or travel experience, especially international work experience, is worth at least one academic degree. In the creative professions such as design, natural ability and talent is most critical. I will relate a story that the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told:

‘I couldn’t wait to get out of college and start practicing architecture in the real world. When I finally established my company and built a few houses I started getting all kinds of people wanting to work for me. I would get recent graduates from Harvard or Yale, with master’s degrees, of course! You are already masters of architecture, I would tell them, so why do you want to work for a lowly bachelor like me?’

The point that Frank was making was that talent plays the biggest role in all creative/inventive arenas. The higher the quality of work the less marketing is required and the overrated concept of professionalism is eclipsed by the proof of quality. Doing good triumphs over looking good!

And, one would think it needless to mention, high quality staff must be treated with respect and given the appropriate appreciation. The most unprofessional thing a company can do is treat intelligent, experienced and talented staff like faceless commodities! Stressed out, miserable employees, if they stay, do not make good innovators or loyal staff. Another mistake, believe it or not – but it happens, is to treat them like children or criminal suspects.

Although, it makes sense to look smart and be on time and so on, it is far more important to ensure that company staff is genuinely competent and satisfied with their working environment. This means, in a nutshell, consulting them about managerial plans that may affect them, providing a comfortable and pleasant working environment, incentives, bonuses, sensible holidays, providing a logical and flexible work schedule/program and being sympathetic to personal problems. Global competitiveness should not mean the destruction of individuality in the workplace under ruthless numerically inclined dictators – after all – we frown upon political dictatorship, don’t we!

Tried and tested recreational activities such as a monthly staff dinner, inclusive company meetings, a trip to a place of interest, transportation concessions, bi-annual bonuses and opportunities for company training or advancement are the kind of benefits that reveal a company’s attitude toward its employees.

Click Here Now For More Information About Eric Christen

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