Image: page from Twentieth Century Culture and Deportment, 1899 (National Publishing Co., Library of Congress)
Are academics the most unprofessional professionals in the world? Sometimes it seems that way.
Although I’ve spent most of my adult life in higher education, I’ve also had extensive dealings with people in the corporate and nonprofit sectors, and I have to tell you: Those of us in academe don’t always look so good by comparison.
Case in Point: Back in November, after our new book The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders came out, my co-author Karl Haden and I sent complimentary copies to select business and education leaders. Most of the corporate types responded within a few weeks with a nice note — in several cases, handwritten — thanking us for the book. (Whether they actually cracked it, we have no idea.)
The academics? Other than a few we know personally, we never heard a word from most of them.
When someone gives you a gift, whatever you think of it, you send a thank-you note. That’s just good manners. Then again, that’s precisely what professionalism is — good manners extended to professional life.
Permit me to illustrate the point with a second anecdote. Last fall, about a week before Thanksgiving, I was contacted by a college asking if I was available to give a talk to its faculty in January. I got back to the college right away because it seemed like the courteous and professional thing to do, and also to confirm my availability for an event that was less than two months away. I received no immediate response.
Three weeks went by, and still no one from the college had contacted me. At that point, we were well into December, almost to the end of the semester. If I were going to visit that campus in January, I really needed to attend to certain logistical details before the holidays, such as filing a travel request with my own college and booking a flight.
So I wrote back to say, in essence, "Hey, I haven’t heard anything from you. Do you still want me to come speak in January? Because if so, there are some things I need to do on my end." I went out of my way to be polite and not sound annoyed.
Again, nothing. It’s March and I still haven’t heard anything back from that college, which I find not only baffling but unconscionable.
It’s not that they had any obligation to invite me to their campus, but they were the ones who approached me. Maybe they decided to bring in somebody else or use an in-house speaker. Maybe they canceled the event altogether. I don’t know. And I’ll never know, because they didn’t bother to tell me. That’s unprofessional, not to mention rude. And the saddest part, perhaps, is that this was not an isolated incident. I encounter that sort of unprofessionalism among people who work at colleges and universities on a regular basis.
Why do we behave that way?
I don’t know the answer to that either, although I can certainly speculate. Perhaps, in keeping with the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, we’re just a little scatterbrained. Or, as intellectuals living "the life of the mind," we don’t think the normal rules of human social interaction apply to us — or we don’t even know the rules. Or we’re so impressed with our own importance, or the importance of our function (professor, dean, director), that we think everyone else ought to put their lives on hold and work around our schedule.
Or maybe we just haven’t been taught any better. Graduate programs prepare students for a lot of things: in-depth research, field-specific publishing, even (in some cases) the job search. But apparently they’re doing a poor job teaching professionalism — perhaps because professors don’t always model that behavior themselves.
I do know that unprofessionalism, in the long run, is highly destructive. It puts a strain on what should be collegial relationships. It harms reputations, as people get labeled "hard to get along with." It drives away potential clients, collaborators, and students. It prevents the college and its programs from running as smoothly as they could.
So how do we fix this? The obvious answer is through education, which is why I’m broaching the topic in this column — to help young academics and administrators understand what it means to behave professionally. (Frankly, I don’t have much hope for the older ones.)
But that raises another question: What, exactly, constitutes professionalism? Here are a few specific behaviors that come to mind:
Respond in kind. As a faculty member or administrator, you get a lot of emails, not to mention voice messages, texts, and even old-fashioned letters. Do you really have to respond to all of them?
Professionalism dictates that you do, at least within certain parameters. Personally, I don’t feel obligated to answer unsolicited inquiries (via email or otherwise) that are directed to multiple recipients. I understand that people who send out mass emails fully expect only a few of those recipients to "bite." I have no problem not being one of those few.
But other than that, I answer virtually every email and phone message, even if they’re from people I don’t know, and even if the sender or caller just wants something from me. (As someone who writes for a national publication, I get a lot of emails from people I don’t know, most of them wanting something from me.) My answer might well be, "No, thank you" or "No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that," but if someone goes to the trouble of contacting me directly and by name, I will extend to that individual the courtesy of a reply.
Follow through. Another common form of unprofessionalism is a failure to deliver as expected. None of us appreciates the contractor who disappears for weeks at a time, finally completing the remodeling project (or not) long after the promised date. That’s unprofessional.
Likewise, academics have obligations and deadlines — to submit forms or reports, to complete manuscripts, to return students’ graded papers. There may be times when we have to swallow our pride and ask for an extension, as courteously and professionally as possible. At other times, we may need to help students and colleagues adjust their unrealistic expectations.
But for the most part, we should meet our deadlines and fulfill our obligations, because doing what we’ve promised to do is a cornerstone of professionalism. Dropping the ball is not only unprofessional, it’s rude and inconsiderate in that it creates problems for other people — just as your contractor leaving your kitchen in a shambles creates problems for you, not him.
Be there. We also have places we have to be: classes, office hours, faculty meetings, committee meetings, meetings to plan meetings. And while we may occasionally have good reason to be absent, for the most part we are obligated to be where we are supposed to be, when we are supposed to be there. "Reliable," "dependable," and "punctual" might not be exact synonyms for "professional," but they’re pretty close.
And then there are those places we don’t have to be but probably should be: like a student’s art exhibit or a close colleague’s poetry reading or that holiday party at the dean’s house. As unappealing as some of those events might seem, occasionally professionalism calls for a sacrifice of time to demonstrate our commitment to the institution and to our fellow human beings.
Speak temperately. A few years ago, while attending a major conference in my discipline, I witnessed a group of people attempting to shout down a speaker with whom they disagreed. Besides being annoyed that I couldn’t hear the speaker — with whom I didn’t necessarily agree, either — I thought they were being extremely rude and unprofessional. The fact that many of them were obviously senior professors probably explains why so many younger faculty members act that way, too.
Among other things, professionalism requires us to moderate our speech, to be as gracious as possible, and to seek to avoid giving offense. It may also, at times, require us to acknowledge our own failings, accept our share of the responsibility when things don’t go well, and resolve to make amends.
Follow the Golden Rule. Ultimately, the mark of a professional is how you treat people who are below you on the organizational chart and who can’t do anything for you personally. In essence, treat people the way you would want to be treated.
If you’re a true professionals, you treat everyone else’s time as just as valuable as your own. You do what you’ve committed to do. Although you may have very high expectations, you are tolerant of human failings (including your own) and considerate of other people’s feelings.
In short, acting professionally simply means behaving like a decent human being in the workplace. What does it say about our profession when a significant minority, at least, fail to measure up to that standard?