Rethinking What’s “Professional” in a Pandemic

My grandmother always used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” And I think that notion applies to any message we as brands or as professionals put out into the world during this time. If we’re not saying something helpful, then we shouldn’t say anything. So this is my sincere attempt at adding something encouraging to the conversation right now.

It’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re still in the midst of a crisis, especially a pandemic unprecedented in modern times, and definitely like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime. But as I’ve been thinking about all this, I’ve realized what this crisis is showing us: We’re all vulnerable. 

In that statement, I mean that this virus does not discriminate. Age, ethnicity, gender, income level, rural or urban, blue or red — we’re all susceptible to the illness it can cause, which can be manageable for some and mortal to others.

But what if this shared experience can teach us to think of that same statement in a different way: We’re all vulnerable. Too many of us, whether in our professional or personal lives, build up a persona of self-reliance, unshakable confidence, impeccable performance, or impersonal “professionalism” that’s afraid to really connect with the people we spend 40 plus hours a week with because of some invented line between what is “work” and what is “personal.” Sure, that persona may be part of you, but it’s far from all of you.

In this crazy time we’re experiencing, that line between professional and personal is becoming a little less defined. Colleagues open up about their fears for their older family members, share their own health situations that have them worried, express their struggles with isolation. But we also get to hear the new mother’s infant cooing as she holds him during a conference call, a teammate’s dog playing with a squeaky toy. We see the backdrop of their living rooms or home offices or basements on video calls. We learn a little more about what they’re doing to stay sane — from baking sourdough bread to drinking bourbon to working out every day. 

All of these glimpses into our real lives that we usually try to hide when we present ourselves in a work setting are actually the very things that can make us more endearing to each other. Those honest exchanges and personal insights can deepen our relationships and help us to see our colleagues as more human in a way that is invaluable.

Coronavirus has and continues to show us that we’re all humans. We all have weaknesses. We all can get sick, experience emotion, have anxieties, get depressed, be a pain in the ass, struggle with insecurities. And we all can fail. But we’re also humans who can show immense resolve, muster strength in the face of unfathomable challenges, be brave, invent creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, bounce back after failures and suffering. We can defy the odds.

We’re all scared. None of us knows what comes next. But we know that our teammates, our employees, our bosses are all in the same boat. While working from home and social distancing are making us physically more distant from each other, they may also be the things that bring us closer together if we’re willing let down our guard, blur that line a little more between our person and our persona. We may be able to realize some good out of this bad situation if we just embrace the value in being vulnerable. 

Matthew

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