I was inspired to write this blog by a politician – Stephen Dorrell, MP and former Secretary of State for Health who recently addressed a large group of surgeons about professionalism. He spoke about the need for professionals to “suffer from divine discontent” about one’s own work – to challenge themselves frequently about what they are doing and how it could be done better. He suggested that such “divine discontent” should become institutionalised within organisations so that at every level there is a willingness to question (however difficult the question might be) and thereby to try and improve.

To be thought of as highly professional is, to my mind, one of the greatest compliments one can receive within the world of work. Conversely, being considered unprofessional is a potentially serious indictment which at worst can bring careers to an end. Professionalism has been defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behaviour that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.

Stephen Dorrell’s lecture prompted me to revisit what being a professional means in my work as an occupational psychologist. Like all professions, we have a professional code of conduct (ethics and standards) based on four key principles: respect; competence; responsibility; and integrity. In Edgecumbe Health we work with some challenging situations (doctors and other clinicians in difficult interpersonal situations within their team) in which our professionalism is tested most days of the week. Being professional means, amongst other things, treating clients with the utmost respect and care, suspending judgement long enough to hear their story. It means behaving with integrity – staying true to the skills and behaviours that are expected of our profession rather than straying beyond the limits of where we feel competent or qualified, however much pressure we may feel from the client to behave otherwise. For example, I am not trained in relationship counselling, psychotherapy or the clinical diagnosis of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression or personality disorders. So for me, acting professionally means being clear at the outset or when such issues arise and when I cannot help, to say so and try to signpost the client to an alternative source of help. It means ensuring that everything I do has a valid evidence base where possible (and being honest if it does not). It means being willing to speak up and speak out if I see a colleague doing something that concerns me and that I think may be harming him/her or others. By the same token, being professional means listening and seeking to understand concerns that others might raise about me and trying to avoid reacting defensively or denying the issue.

Whilst all of this is expected as part of being a Chartered Psychologist it is not always easy to achieve. Part of being a professional therefore involves seeking regular supervision from a qualified individual who can assist in the processing of difficult situations with clients and enable me to examine what I did, why I did it and what other approaches I might have taken.

The notion of “divine discontent” is a potentially onerous burden for perfectionist individuals who drive themselves and others relentlessly to meet high standards. Yet being professional also means being tolerant of error and failures, maintaining a sense of perspective and sound judgement and not obsessing about details. Lapses in professional behaviour can and do occur in even the most professional individuals. To err is human – but the real lapse in professionalism is when there is a failure to learn from the event or an unwillingness even to consider one’s own contribution to a problem, and instead to seek blame elsewhere.

George Bernard Shaw notoriously claimed that “a profession is a conspiracy against the laity” – in other words (according to him) a group of people who club together and close ranks; guided by self-interest and rather than the interests of those they serve (patients, customers, the public, etc). Sadly, this has proved to be the case in the context of many recent scandals rocking healthcare, finance and journalism. It is because of these that there has perhaps never been a more important time to revisit what it means to behave professionally.

Ultimately, professionalism sits at the heart of governance and leaders of organisations in every sector would do well periodically to revisit their own brand of professionalism and what this means to the people they serve.

by Dr. Jenny King