Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Professional: A Euphemism for 'Personal'

This Sunday, I was left stranded with the newspaper supplement that no one else wanted to read, which didn't bode very well for my morning. But I happened upon something that kick started a train of thought - a write-up on how to conduct an 'office romance' successfully. The article claimed that for the most part romantic liaisons between employees are frowned upon - organizations can and do impose penalties on offending parties, colleagues gossip and equations sour. But the  affairs continue to flourish, although only a tiny percentage culminate in fairytale endings. This begs a fairly obvious question - why take the risk? Why chance a reputation, a career, a track record for something that could be fleeting? Why let hope (or baser emotions) triumph over common sense? Why let the potentially personal come in the way of the positively professional?

Personal/professional. It's an interesting distinction, and one that is frequently implied, stated and even demanded. For reasons unknown, every time someone talks about the personal versus the professional, I am reminded of an entirely unremarkable exchange between the lead actors of 'You've Got Mail.' At one point in the movie, billionaire bookstore-chain magnate Tom Hanks tells Meg Ryan - 'It's not personal. It's business.' And Meg Ryan, owner of an imperiled independent bookstore responds by saying - 'I don't understand why people always say that. What's so wrong about being personal anyway?

I'm not sure whether there's anything right or wrong about being personal. I'm convinced that we don't really have a choice. I haven't been working very long, but I've been working long enough to know that professionalism is a myth. Work is personal.

People love what they do, hate what they do, or are indifferent to it. They will love some of their colleagues (if they're lucky), hate some of their colleagues, and be more or less indifferent to others. Some will scheme and steal intellectual property, others won't.  People will exercise good or poor judgment, play by the rules or skirt them. Some of us are born leaders, some are born followers, some are manipulators, some will use charm to grease wheels, some are wall-flowers, some thrive in teams, some when alone. Cultures suit us differently. It's true that we are an edited version of ourselves at work, but that's true of most of us in most of our interactions.

Ultimately, any working day and any work-related project essentially  puts multiple personalities in motion - resulting either in great chemistry and great end-products, or a demoralizing implosion. Things really do work better when we work with people we like or respect. 

Of course there are those who take more responsibility for a project than others, but that is a function of conscientiousness. Some people are more invested in what they do and their work holds more personal meaning for them. But even so, I would argue that de-prioritizing work is a personal choice. Those of us who see work as a means to an end may derive less satisfaction from our jobs than from art, sport, movies, reading or family life - but our minute-to-minute experiences of working life are still shaped by preferences, personalities, likes and dislikes.

Organizations are organisms. People collide against each other, suffer bruised egos, fall in love and dislike-on-sight while they work, just as they do in their lives. No matter what boundaries we try to draw, what delineations we try to make, no matter how quick we are to swipe our cards on the way in or out, there's no escaping the fact that when even when work isn't life, it's still a part of life. We only get to choose how big a part it plays.

This is a lesson that takes some learning. I'm reminded of an NYTimes Corner Office column, in which a CEO confessed that she used to maintain separate 'work' and 'life' calenders. But having two separate calendars meant that she was second-guessing schedules and priorities when pencilling in an event on either one of them. Eventually, she collapsed the distinction and bought one calendar, which allowed her to plan and choose better.  

As it is for matters of meetings, so it is for matters of the heart. In grappling with love and lust at work, it's useful to remember that we're actually grappling with consequences. Just as we do in life. It helps to choose well, because euphemisms will get you nowhere.

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