Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires: Professionalism in the Workplace

Article excerpt

Professionalism: (i) the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person; (2) the following of a profession (as athletics) for gain or livelihood. (Merriam-Webster Online).

Professionalism in the workplace is expected, but what is it? What do you think professionalism is? What about the staff and colleagues you work with: How would they answer this question? Do we assume that everyone knows what the code of conduct is, or do we believe it is self-evident ? We hear all too often of our leaders' (not to mention our politicians') ignoring the principles and expectations of character associated with their professions.

Teachers and administrators may invest years in their careers only to have a moment of indiscretion undermine all they have gained. Whether you are just starting out in the field of education or have been in it for years, it is important to be reminded often of what the rules of engagement are. Remember: It only takes a bit of carelessness to start a forest fire. Our behavior, our speech, and our attitude can act as matches to ignite situations we later may regret; it may take years to rebuild our credibility.

This article focuses on how we act and how we treat people. In essence, we are talking about professional etiquette, which can be described as "conforming to the standards of skill, competence, or character normally expected of a properly qualified and experienced person in a work environment" (Merriam-Webster Online).

So what is our role? As leaders and part of the community, we need to keep an ever-watchful eye out for smoldering situations or those which may give rise to negative attitudes. When we say a potential problem is "not our problem" - perhaps a student is upset with a faculty member - or we respond by saying, "Oh, that doesn't surprise me," we fuel the problem. Ignoring a problem only fans the flames; ultimately, the fire is likely to extend to politically sensitive areas of the institution. What am I saying? Only you can prevent forest fires!

FORCEFUL: Being overly forceful sends potential friends and allies running. Although we may not say it, people sense it. "My idea is the right one! I will raise my voice and pound my fist, letting others know to back off. It is my agenda or no agenda!" The forceful person is readily apparent in meetings. He forgets to listen, and, though often the "loyal" opposition, he lacks tact and savvy at soliciting support for what actually may be a good idea.

How do people demonstrate forcefulness in your institution? Is it a supervisor who comes from the old-school way of "My way or the highway" or "Ours is but to obey"? This is the boss who becomes paranoid and who wonders whom he can trust.

At Grand Rapids Community College we work in teams whenever possible; we consider the impacts on others; and we solicit ideas from the community. "Who else should be at this meeting?" is a frequently asked question. This is what has made us an NCA Vanguard school.

OUTSPOKEN: The outspoken quickly can become the outcast. She dismantles efforts to work together. And although groupthink is not the desired result, she seems to have an opinion on everything. Though she may mean well, she dominates conversations, igniting brush fires of animosity and gossip.

Think before you speak: Don't be more confident than the facts warrant. It can be very easy to make statements that sound true but that upon closer reflection or more current information may prove not to be. What a quick way to ruin credibility! In a recent legal situation, a subpoena requested items not normally requested; having spoken with more authority than an attorney, I quickly realized that my statements were not consistent with legal interpretations. To correct the situation, I had to clarify everything with the attorney. It is OK to be wrong; just don't be wrong for long.

RAGE: Off-road rage is the most glaring sign of a lack of professionalism. …