3 Ways “Gracious Professionalism” Will Revolutionize You Career

Infusing your career with humanness through empathy and reciprocity.

Picture shows the words kindness is a superpower on a brick wall
Photo by Andrew Thornebrooke on Unsplash

Ever since humans started working with machines we have become like them. If we want our efforts to be valued by society, they need to be efficient, effective, perfect, and consistent. Sounds pretty robotic to me.

In North America, we have a sense of fierce independence. We celebrate the self-made man, the person who made it on their own, and the people who are always winning. We love the people that never lose (the ones who get the accolades also get the love). They are the ones with the social and financial rewards. But individualism doesn’t help us succeed on a long-term basis. 

And I’m not talking about individual success… sure, you can achieve as one rugged individual.

I’m talking about the success of companies, cultures and societies which rely on interdependent pieces. They require collectives.

Since individualism is intertwined with today’s culture, it becomes difficult to envision a “successful” career without it. But our short term success is setting us up for long term failure. 

If we behave like robots at work, we don’t add value to humans. 

“Gracious professionalism” helps me to redefine the way I act in the workplace. It focuses on adding value and collaboration rather than rugged independence.

If you have never heard of this term before, you aren’t the only one. It was a happy accident that I stumbled on it.

Professor Woody Flowers first coined the term for a robotics competition called FIRST. It’s one of their defining guidelines and is followed by all competitors. 

As a guideline, “gracious professionalism” focuses on respecting each other, valuing each other’s contributions, and giving back to help produce the highest quality work. The idea is that fierce competition and mutual gain among participants are not exclusive.

Disclaimer — I don’t like the term “gracious” or “professional” by themselves.

Both these terms come with discriminatory baggage. 

Their definitions are riddled with class privilege, and status that we are still fighting today. Despite this when the words combine they have powerful implications of treating each other with empathy and compassion. Which I wholeheartedly believe in. Workplace diversity and inclusion initiatives rely on us overcoming the individual definitions of these words.

Gracious means to be courteous, kind, charming, of good taste, generous, tactful, and delicate. 

Although none of us can claim to be all these things, a lot of us are working towards them. The golden rule (which has versions across almost all religions and societies) outlines a gracious way of living: treat others as you would like to be treated. I’m guessing you like to be treated with kindness, compassion, and tact. These are the foundations of graciousness.

Professionalism is defined as the conduct, aim, or qualities that characterize a profession or a professional person. 

Not a very specific or clear definition, in my opinion. 

When I think of professionalism I think of the TV show Suits. Harvey Specter is a powerhouse lawyer and the star of the show. 

Here are some of his character traits:

  • intelligent
  • good looking
  • well dressed
  • a little bit controlling 
  • very sneaky 
  • a little bit cold 
  • doesn’t express his emotions 
  • has no problem with the cutthroat competitive world of the legal system.

Overall he is independent. He fits perfectly into the problematic view of professionalism in North American society. Because Harvey Specter (among hundreds of other TV show characters that I’m sure you know of) are glamorized as being the “successful professionals” when in fact their independence is not sustainable or helpful long term.

When you put the words “gracious” and “professionalism” together, you get a phrase indicating a giving and kind professional relationship. 

It fits well with the idea of a go-giver which I wrote about in a previous article. 

Examples of “Gracious Professionalism”

When you are a gracious professional you’re willing to pass along a referral for a client to a competitor. You recognize that you might not be a great fit for them! So instead of providing a crappy service that doesn’t meet their needs, you pass them along to your competitor to ensure they get a better quality product.

Another example is referring a friend to a job that you’re applying for. You know that you’ll both be in competition for the role and are unlikely to both be successful. Even though there’s a chance you’ll lose out on the position, you want to support them in their job search.

“Gracious professionalism” is lending a piece of equipment to a competitor (like in FIRST robotics competitions). It’s lending a tool to them even though it reduces your chance of winning. But it displays compassion and integrity which strengthens the competition overall.

Giving helps to develop a career that is not only beneficial for you, but that impacts the world.

3 ways that gracious professionalism will transform your career: 

1. You get more by giving more

In the book the Go-Giver by Bob Berg and David Mann, they discuss the principle that you receive in direct response to what you give.

Their story (check out this piece if you are curious) demonstrates that to get more money, more accolades, more success you need to first give those things to others.

Here are two scenarios to show this.

Scenario 1: Imagine that you are working and your colleague needs you to help him finish a project by a deadline. Now imagine that colleague has never helped you out in a pinch before.

Scenario 2: Imagine that you are working and your colleague needs you to help him finish a project by a deadline. This person has helped you on several recent projects and supports you to be successful.

In which case are you going to be more likely to help out?

Scenario 2, of course! You’re more likely to help the person who was a “gracious professional” and has helped you before. They were able to receive help from you because they gave it to you many times before. They got more by giving more.

Holding onto what you have out of stinginess and control will hold you back in your long term growth. It limits your strength of collaboration. Contributing to the success of everyone in a group helps to grow you and the organization in the long term. 

2. You will build a professional network that is strong and caring.

How many of us have LinkedIn followers that we don’t know the names or stories of?

I bet it’s a lot.

LinkedIn has glamorized the size of your network rather than the quality. Within my Linkedin network (which I admit is very large) I have a smaller network of people that I can go to if I have questions, and that I can send referrals to. 

My close LinkedIn network are the ones that I know about their families, and that they know about mine. And this close network is only built because they saw value in connecting with me. It requires that you are a “gracious professional.” They’re not there (and they wouldn’t be there) if I focused on rugged individualism. 

By building a professional network that is strong and caring you can get referrals for jobs and can get assistance for projects that you need. You might even be able to help out your network in stronger and more impactful ways because they will trust and depend on you too.

3. Relationships are mutually beneficial if both members are gracious professionals.

If you understand that you don’t need to figure it all out on your own, then you are likely to reach out to others for help. And you are going to learn new things about a diverse array of topics as a result. Even better, your peers will learn from you too.

This happened to me recently.

I was having a conversation with a potential client of mine, and he taught me about a brand new tech concept that I had never heard of before. If I had been there to just “get his business” rather than build a meaningful connection with him, I would never have learned it. This in turn helped me to teach it to my other clients and my candidates.

The cycle of “gracious professionalism” is self-sustaining and mutually beneficial to you and your network.

Although Gracious Professionalism came from a robotics competition, the principles need to be applied in more aspects of life.

The idea of “gracious professionalism” came from a very specific context… a competition designed to ensure the success and learning of every competitor and not just of the winning team.

If we apply this principle in our careers — broadening our focus beyond our own success and noticing the impact that we can have on others — then we can begin to develop more inclusive and progressive workplaces. 

We will move our companies forward, move our colleagues forward, and impact the world in ways that are much greater than if we could try to do it all on our own. And for that reason, I think that this concept should be embedded in our careers every step of the way.

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