Are you a human in a professional suit?

Sometimes when I walk into an office, I feel like I’m walking into an alien world, inhabited by a race of beings that are clearly anthropoid, but don’t seem to be human. There are all these creatures sitting in cubicles, staring at screens, moving their fingers, but many of them only rarely look away from the screens or to notice that there are other anthropoids around.

Usually, I have been invited into the office as part of project. The names of these projects heighten my suspicion that the beings I am working with may not be real people. We work on things like performance systems, business processes, communication lines, climate, vision, strategy, objectives and so on. These things all sound very professional, technical and somehow important. What they don’t sound is human.  I’m not saying they are not related to humans and human endeavor. Of course they are. But, it often takes a lot of work to get clients to remember the human stuff that lies beneath the surface.

These office beings (including me) are humans in professional suits. It seems that when we humans put on our professional suits we forget that no matter what all the professionals around us look like, beneath each suit hides a real, live human being. What worries me is that the professional suit obscures much of the human endeavor and experience that lurks beneath the surface of all the work that gets done in organizations.

I guess I can see the sense in throwing technical and professional cloaks over large-scale ventures or whole economies. It would be hopelessly inefficient to try to consider the real experiences and potentialities of 3,000,000 or 300,000 or even 3,000 human beings at the same time (to say nothing of the other folks who might be connected to them). It probably makes more sense to just focus on them as something measurable like inputs and outputs or sortable like laborers, information workers and service professional, etc.

What I find much harder to understand, though, is how we are capable of forgetting ourselves when we put on our own professional suits. There are certain aspects of human experience that are so fundamental that it seems they shouldn’t need to be professionalized or converted into technical fields, and yet we have created all sorts of complex technical and professional systems to manage them.

Consider feedback for example. The giving and receiving of feedback (in the broadest sense) is a fundamental human function. We praise and criticize each other all the time. We fish for praise and we sometimes even manage to solicit criticism. We all feel great or horrible or confused by the feedback we receive in life and work. And we are basically curious about what the other human beings around us are up to and what they think about us.  In fact, recent research shows that a surprisingly large portion of our gray matter is devoted to understanding and communicating with other human beings. Seems like we human beings ought to be pretty good at giving and receiving feedback or solving problems together.  From what can be observed in most organizations, though, most of us don’t seem to be so great at it.

In the world of work, we tend to look for professional solutions to problems of this sort. We set up feedback systems, processes, guidelines and for good measure perhaps even training and coaching to make sure that the feedback floating around our organizations is professional and effectively aligned with the achievement of desired business outcomes. And, yes it is true that the technical guidelines, processes and programs can have a positive impact.

Still, I wonder if turning feedback into a professional, technical skill is really the solution to the problem.  It seems like all the systems, processes and guides in the world are not of much use until the humans in the professional suits peek out and notice that they are being called upon as humans to deal with other humans. Is it possible that by investing so heavily in the professional package and its technical apparatus, we might be addressing symptoms rather then real problems? Is it possible that the problem is not so much one of technical skill or functioning systems so much as of the lack of a human-friendly work environment? With a little healthy human connection, the feedback problem may become easier to address.

As a manager and facilitator, I’ve noticed that when – whether by chance or design – the people inside the suits start to notice all the other people inside the other suits – even without guidance or training – they often start exhibiting normal human behaviors – like praising, criticizing or even showing curiosity about each other. Sometimes they do it clumsily, but the more they do it, the better they become at it. If they can manage to remember their human-ness even as they talk about their work, they often end up chatting about nuts-and-bolts issues and they may even start exhibiting behaviors that look suspiciously like giving and receiving feedback or solving problems.

Once this has begun, it is often possible to introduce bits and pieces of the professional and technical apparatus (the training and systems) to help things along. But the professional tools seem to work better in the hands of people in touch with themselves and others as humans – not just as professionals.

Those of us in the people development fields need to be particularly careful. Whatever our intentions, when we put on our professional suits and go out to work with clients, we face a lot of pressure to deliver and describe professional results. But if we focus on our clients only as professionals we may be part of the problem rather than the solution. In our professional fervor (which comes in no small part from the the need to survive as people development professionals), we run the risk of forgetting that the ultimate source of performance is not our professional expertise or the technical apparatus we provide, but our human clients, themselves.

People often do great work in their professional suits. But somehow the suits also seem to have the power to temporarily disable the human instincts of the people who put them on. I like to think that the biggest part of my job is helping the humans figure out how to keep those instincts activated even after they suit up for their profession. This seems to be in the interest of the humans, their professional selves and the organizations for which they work.

© Dana Cogan 2008 and 2017-2020, all rights reserved.

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