People often confuse professionalism with being stiff, aloof, or perfect. When in actuality, being a professional is about doing quality work, treating people with respect, holding strong values, and portraying competence and confidence. We’ve all met people who are "pros.” Yet, throughout my career I’ve seen far too many people try to position themselves as “professional” by projecting an unrelatable, cold persona in an effort to be taken seriously.
In truth, what we are drawn to in others is often not their perfection, but instead their imperfection, their vulnerabilities. Once we see the less than perfect aspects of someone, we can view them as a complete person, trust them more, relate to them, and ultimately root for them.
About six months into a new role with an entirely new team, one of my peers pulled me into his office to give me some feedback. His staff didn’t like me. Sure, I was a hard-charging, extroverted, and at times demanding leader who pushed his team to perform at a much higher level. I assumed that this was why they didn’t like me. I was wrong. What really irked them about me was this belief that I was “Mr. Perfect” — articulate, well dressed, fast-thinking, and young. I laughed aloud when I heard this — I’ve never related to myself as anything close to perfect. If they wanted proof, I’d invite them to see my desk or the inside of my briefcase. But my colleague gave me solid advice that improved my ability to build a relationship with his team: “Show them you put your pants on one leg at a time.”
This advice ran counter to my strategy of being a “buttoned up” professional, as I was hungry to produce results and advance in my career. It took me awhile to reveal my flaws and imperfections — yet once I started to, the ice between me and his staff began to melt. I’d jam up the copy machine and joke at my ineptitude as someone would come over to help me. These small, honest moments shifted my persona from "Mr. Perfect" to the real Ben — funny, colorful, caring, bold, diverse, creative and flawed.
Crack the Joke
Appropriate humor can be a wonderful way to lighten the mood, relieve stress, and create a common bond. In fact, there are studies showing that managers who utilize humor can improve employee productivity. I’m not talking about mean-spirited, offensive, and inappropriate humor that doesn’t belong in the workplace. What I am talking about is humor about behavior — ideally, your own. The safest person to crack a joke about is yourself. It's a great way to demonstrate you can be silly and don’t take yourself too seriously.
In Andrew Tarvin’s entertaining Ted Talk, he discusses how humor can make you more productive, less stressed, and create better relationships in the workplace.
Just before I started my first job out of college at Lockheed Martin, I took a personal development workshop where we defined what we wanted to be known for. One of the three characteristics I chose was humor. I presumed this quality would arise mostly outside of work. Yet to my delight, my first annual performance review specifically recognized my sense of humor as a unique strength. Never had I imagined, in an engineering environment, that my humor would differentiate my professional brand.
My Video Bloopers
Last year, I did a weekly video series on Mondays called “Make It Happen Monday”. My objectives were to be more consistent in posting useful content on social media and to become more comfortable on camera. In the process, I made many mistakes. At times I’d get so flustered that I’d need ten or more takes to record a simple 15-second video! I was generally proud of the final cut, but few people knew how many attempts it took to get it right. That’s why I kept my bloopers and shared them with my friends and followers online at the end of the series. Take a look at some of the “lowlights” of me learning to be more comfortable on camera.
So as you head to work, remember to show your humanity, sense of humor, and imperfections so others can see you as a whole person and ultimately root for you.