Developing This Vital Characteristic


Are you a professional, all the time?

© iStockphoto/Neustockimages

You know that it's essential to be professional if you want to be a success. But what does "being professional" actually mean?

For some, being professional might mean dressing smartly at work, or doing a good job. For others, being professional means having advanced degrees or other certifications, framed and hung on the office wall. Professionalism encompasses all of these definitions. But, it also covers much more.

So, what is professionalism, and why does it matter? And how can you be completely professional in your day-to-day role? In this article we'll explore all of these questions, so that you can present a really professional image in the workplace

Defining Professionalism

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines professionalism as "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person"; and it defines a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation."

These definitions imply that professionalism encompasses a number of different attributes, and, together, these attributes identify and define a professional.

So, what are these attributes?

Specialized Knowledge

First and foremost, professionals are known for their specialized knowledge. They've made a deep personal commitment to develop and improve their skills, and, where appropriate, they have the degrees and certifications that serve as the foundation of this knowledge.

Not all business areas have a stable core of knowledge (and the academic qualifications that go with this); not all areas demand extensive knowledge to practice successfully; and not all professionals have top degrees in their field.

What matters, though, is that these professionals have worked in a serious, thoughtful and sustained way to master the specialized knowledge needed to succeed in their fields; and that they keep this knowledge up-to-date, so that they can continue to deliver the best work possible.


Professionals get the job done. They're reliable, and they keep their promises. If circumstances arise that prevent them from delivering on their promises, they manage expectations up front, and they do their best to make the situation right.

Professionals don't make excuses, but focus on finding solutions.

Honesty and Integrity

Professionals exhibit qualities such as honesty and integrity  . They keep their word, and they can be trusted implicitly because of this. They never compromise their values  , and will do the right thing, even when it means taking a harder road.

More than this, true professionals are humble   – if a project or job falls outside their scope of expertise, they're not afraid to admit this. They immediately ask for help when they need it, and they're willing to learn from others.


Professionals hold themselves accountable for their thoughts, words, and actions, especially when they've made a mistake. This personal accountability is closely tied to honesty and integrity, and it's a vital element in professionalism.


They also stay professional under pressure.

For instance, imagine a customer service employee who's faced with an irate customer. Instead of getting upset or angry in return, the employee exhibits true professionalism by maintaining a calm, business-like demeanor, and by doing everything that she can to make the situation right.

Genuine professionals show respect for the people around them, no matter what their role or situation. They exhibit a high degree of emotional intelligence   (EI) by considering the emotions and needs of others, and they don't let a bad day impact how they interact with colleagues or clients.


Professionals look the part – they don't show up to work sloppily dressed, with unkempt hair. They're polished, and they dress appropriately for the situation. Because of this, they exude an air of confidence, and they gain respect for this.

How to Exhibit Professionalism

As you can see from these characteristics, professionals are the kind of people that others respect and value. They are a genuine credit to their organizations!

This is why it's so important that we work to earn a professional reputation in the workplace. True professionals are the first to be considered for promotions, they are awarded valuable projects or clients, and they are routinely successful in their careers.

Now that you have a clear view of what constitutes professionalism, are you demonstrating these characteristics to the people around you? It's likely you're already showing some characteristics, but you may find yourself lacking in others: to build your own professionalism, focus on improving each of these characteristics. (Focus on one at a time, so you don't get overwhelmed.)

Additionally, here are some further strategies that will help you be more professional in the workplace:

Build Expertise

Don't let your knowledge and skills get outdated. Make a commitment to build expertise   and stay up-to-date with your industry  .


Take our Bite-Sized training session on Building Expert Power to find out how to build and maintain your own expert power.

Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Professionals can sense the emotional needs of others. They're able to give clients and coworkers what they need, because they know how to listen actively   and observe what's happening.

So, if you want to improve your professionalism, focus on developing emotional intelligence  .

Honor Your Commitments

Whenever you make a promise to your boss, colleagues, or clients, keep it. If it looks as if you won't be able to meet a deadline, let your boss, team or client know as soon as sensibly possible. However, do what you can to avoid ending up in this situation!

Don't make excuses – instead, focus on meeting expectations as best you can, and on making the situation right.

Be Polite

Be kind and polite and use good manners to everyone you come into contact with, no matter what their role is, and no matter how you're feeling. This might sound unimportant, but it makes a significant impact.

Have the Tools You Need

Do you show up to a client meeting lacking important samples? Or arrive at work, only to realize that you left a vital file at home? Or do you find yourself operating in situations where you don't have the skills needed to do a good job?

True professionals are always prepared. This requires advance planning, timeliness, and attention. Focus on improving your time management and planning skills  , so that you're always in control.


Although professionalism means keeping commitments, doing high quality work, and having expert status, occasionally the pursuit of these attributes might tempt you not to volunteer for projects that fall outside your "comfort zone."

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't try! Analyze risks   beforehand to minimize the consequences of getting things wrong, be honest about any skills gaps that you have, and work to fill them. Then do the best you possibly can!

Key Points

Professionalism is a trait that's highly valued in the workforce. It has many attributes, including:

  1. Specialized knowledge.
  2. Competency.
  3. Honesty and integrity.
  4. Respect.
  5. Accountability.
  6. Self-regulation.
  7. Image.

To improve your own professionalism, focus on improving in each of these areas.

You can also exude professionalism by being kind and polite to everyone, presenting a professional image in your attitude and dress, and showing up for work or meetings fully prepared.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (10)
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hola Corine,
    I am pleased to hear that you learned something from the article, and hope you are able to apply some new things to help you further develop your professionalism.

    We have alot more resources here to help build your professional and personal skills, so have a look around and let us know if we can help.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Corine wrote Over a month ago
    Me encanto,aprendí algo esta noche.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Di

    Interesting question! In our article, "Gaining the Trust of Your New Team" , respect is described as follows: "Respect – never ask anyone to do something you wouldn't do yourself."
    You may also want to have a look at the following two threads in the forums about respect.
    Let us know what you think and what your definition of respect is.

  • dipalmer wrote Over a month ago
    Hi, do you have a little summary for 'Respect'? I have my own opinion of how a professional shows respect however I value your opinion and would love to know how you summarise it! thanks Di
  • ladyb wrote Over a month ago
    Good for you April! I hope you feel very proud of your decision. It's the strong and capable among us who stand up for what they know is right. Your example is proof that it can be done.

    Thank you very much for sharing and for being who you are. Onward and upward!!

  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    April, wow what a awful situation to be placed in. Congratulations on getting out. Like 'Nancy' integrity seams to be a BIG management problem I only hope these are exceptional examples.

    tks for sharing Cheers Michael
  • april123 wrote Over a month ago
    I have been in a situation where my boss at a previous company expected me to do something unethical. I had a huge problem with that. It resulted in a number of meetings and ended up in our relationship being damaged for ever. He felt I was being pedantic and I felt that he was being downright dishonest. The truth of the matter is that if I did what he asked me to, it could have led to criminal charges against the company...and guessed it - the perpetrator which would have been me. Unfortunately the other directors didn't have the guts to stand up to this guy. This whole situation was one of the deciding factors that led to my resignation there.

  • uncletom wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all I like bigK's view Nancy could do more.
    The boss has integrity issues...why should she accept them?
    She should go and inspect the damage...for sure her boss didn't bother!
    In the modern world take pics. Show them in advance? Be what a concept...

    I have found that being honest and open always pays...does Nancy's boss know the cost of replacing this shipment? The cost of losing the customer? The cost of tarnishing the reputation of the shipping company?

    All she seams focused on is 'softly' confronting her boss..this to me is focusing on the problem and not the solution and I am looking forward to see what others think?

    This is a learning opportunity and I hope to learn. Tks
  • bigk wrote Over a month ago

    Seems like she (Nancy) should certainly be asking or saying something about how she could help this manager better understand the importance or significance of these decisions.

    More actions are likely.

    Doing some research about this for more than just Nancy.

  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    This is a very real dilemma in life and its much easier to say than do.

    In Nancy's options doing nothing is not an option and confronting her boss is certainly one of the doing options. I also think there are other things she could do showing her integrity in different ways and I wonder what suggestions our members can come up with.

    What would you do if you were Nancy?

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