Dignity, behaviour and market pressures

Old professor with a green apple on top of his head.Do you always behave impeccably at work?  As a professional adult you might think your behaviour is beyond reproach.  Maybe you are highly successful and any less than brilliant moments are the price of that success.  Being “professional” means doing exacting work.  Talking about “behaviour” can seem trivial in the context of the required standards of professional conduct.

Everything in the “professional” garden may be rosy when the work is flowing in.  But, does work just flow in anymore?  Old certainties have given way to new dynamics.  Business structures change, clients demand a different level of service, people are asked to deliver “more for less” at work.

With these demands, the space between the personal and the professional seems to shrink.  The pressure is on to “bring your whole self to work”, to be creative, to innovate in order to sustain business growth.  Pressure on the organisation drives attention towards the individual.  Can you create a team?  Can you communicate effectively?  Are you a good leader?

Many senior professionals did not think they would ever have to answer such questions.  They chose the technical challenges of their professions.  It wasn’t about people.  It certainly wasn’t about “self”.

How do you start to talk about “behaviour” and maintain professional dignity?

There has to be some recognition of the need for change.  As the old, infinitely adaptable joke goes, “How many L&D professionals does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”  It’s a serious point.

Fortunately, there are really good ways of fostering an inclination to learn about behaviour.

Describe the need

When I was at the Bar, I was taught never to take my jacket off and never to eat in the street.  These behaviours were not deemed to be indicative of the kind of standards I was expected to demonstrate.  Formality dictated a certain distance from the ordinary; a physical manifestation of different standards.  As ways to show respect for the client/defendant/court, those behaviours were valuable.  If, in fact, a sense of “otherness” becomes thinly veiled rudeness, or a total lack of self-awareness, then a person may need some help to understand how they are affecting others.

man in a suit looking very angryAgain, at the Bar I saw the most assertive, powerful advocates become mute in the face of flagrant rudeness back in the office.  Dealing with conflict when it is up-close and feels personal is just plain difficult, no matter how articulate you might be in other arenas.  Intelligent people are often delighted to find that good ways to understand behaviour, and navigate the tricky bits.

Offering training which speaks to the challenges professional people encounter dealing with difficult situations can be a way to invite interest in awareness of self and the impact of behaviour on others.

A good place to start is with a psychometric which identifies the behavioural territory in which a person feels at home.  From there the picture can develop to show other preferences, understand other motivations, and to look at ways of working together with people who are similar, and those who are different.

Don’t put people in boxes

Interest in developing good people skills is more likely to grow if people know they are not going to be labelled with a personality type.  Professional people do not like to be boxed in.  Go for a psychometric which describes behaviour on a continuum, allowing for the complexities of personality and the dynamics of everyday life.

Using the right tool to model those internal, personal preferences opens up discussion about behaviour and the behaviour of others.  Suddenly communication transforms from a piece of “blah” management speak to a meaningful process, capable of being influenced by individual conduct.

Use experiential learning

Understanding behaviour cannot be achieved by thinking about concepts alone.  Behaviours have to be experienced, played with, challenged, re-thought, integrated, practised.  Logistically, you need some space and some good training resources.

Put skills into practice

Encourage reflection as part of a structured approach to putting training to practice.  Coaching is a great way of holding senior professionals to account for change.  Talking with peers about what works and what does not work is helpful too.


Many professional firms operate on the basis that people “should do the right thing”.  These “ right things” are known, because they are the same as they have ever been.  That works passably well, as long as things do, indeed, stay the same.

It doesn’t account for a diverse workforce or an outcome-focussed approach.  Arguably, it never worked, because people are complex and they change.  Think Reggie Perrin.  Is ”doing the right thing” enough now?  Can businesses afford to let behaviour drift in the hope the “right thing” is done?  Maybe a more powerful question is, are your competitors doing that?

Nicola Jones

To talk to Nicola about this article, or any development need, call 07799 237479 or email nicola@athenaprofessional.co.uk