Open yourself a new tab and do a quick image search for the term 'Professional'. You won't be surprised by the results. What you're inevitably confronted with is an abject sea of pinstripe, handshaking, and clipboards. Why is it that professionalism has become so inextricably linked with appearance? Is there really a meaningful correlation between how we dress and how we act?
I think there is, but not in a good way.
I worked with a middle-manager once who absolutely hated his job. His actions at work were amongst some of the most erratic and unprofessional I've witnessed in any setting. He would routinely speak down to people, publicly belittle them for making mistakes, expect them to come into the office early and leave late; all kinds of scary stuff. So one day I decided to call him out on it and ask why he thought it was acceptable to treat people with such disdain. I was expecting a royal flush of insults to be headed my way but what I got was a complete surprise.
I was invited into his office where he proceeded to bare his soul to me in a way that I've not experienced at work since. His eyes filled as he admitted to me that he really didn't like the person he became when he was in the office. He said that he didn't recognise himself anymore. He told me about how terrified he was that his actions were getting more aggressive and that he thought this would "end badly"!
I really wasn't prepared for a reaction like that but I wanted to help so we agreed to meet up outside of work and talk through it when things weren't so emotionally charged.
The following weekend, I sat waiting for him to arrive at the local Starbucks but when he turned up I was shocked. At work, he was probably one of the best-dressed people I've ever met. Every day, without exception, his appearance was meticulously planned executive style. He even wore those little cuff link like things that go in your shirt collar tips. I don't even know what they're called!
Today though, he looked positively scruffy! Ill fitting tee shirt, joggers and dirty trainers. I was so surprised to see him like this that before we started to talk about his anger issues I had to ask him about why he dressed so differently outside of work. After a little digging, he told me that he felt that he needed to dress smartly at work because it made him feel and act more professional.
It made him feel and act more professional. Not be, feel. Not behave, act! You see where I'm going with this, right?
We spoke a little longer about his life outside of work. He talked about how he was helping to support his son's family whilst his daughter-in-law was being treated in hospital and how he helped out at the local community centre so that the elderly people in his village had somewhere to meet up.
He was a top guy outside of work so why was he such a total asshat when he put on a suit?
The very act of going through his morning routine and getting 'dressed up' for work completely changed how this guy behaved. It was a mask; a costume. He had created a persona at work that was so different from his home life that it deeply depressed and scared him. His life at work had become an act and he had convinced himself that it was 'professional'. We're not supposed to act like that!
Is this an extreme example? Absolutely! Or at least I hope so. I think we've all run into people though who act professionally. Sometimes it shows up in what people wear. Often it shows up in how people speak. Is your central business strategy enabling transformational change? ;-) People who act this way make everything more difficult for the rest of us.
It's not about whether you wear a suit to work. If you would wear a suit outside of work, go for it! Some of the nicest people I know wear a suit on the weekend. Just don't try to be something you're not for the sake of somebody else's measure of professionalism. Don't try to be something you're not, full stop.
Be an expert. Be confident. Be respectful. Be reliable. Communicate simply, clearly and honestly. Take ownership. Be ambitious. Say please and thank you. Help others. Keep your promises. Share your successes.
If you do all of those things, I consider you professional. I couldn't care less what you wear.