Professionalism Is No Laughing Matter

laugh-a-day-gives-results-that-pay-the-power-of-humor-in-the-workplaceActor Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” I completely agree. Where does laughter fit into the workplace? Is it appropriate? Is it annoying? Does it depend on the situation?

While facilitating a presentation skills program recently, I noticed a “quirk” in one of the participants. Laughter. She was using laughter as a coping mechanism to offset her nervousness. The result: Her behavioral quirk detracted from her message.

Every time I called on her for input, she laughed. When she delivered a sample two-minute presentation, she giggled several times. As we met in a one-on-one evaluation session that afternoon, I shared my observation with her. I asked, “Is crying in the workplace acceptable and appropriate?” She immediately answered, “No.” I then asked, “What about laughter?” She replied, “Not really.” At that moment, I shared my perspective with her.

I explained to her that, as a young woman, she could be sending the wrong message by tagging a giggle or a laugh onto her comments as a coping mechanism. People may not be taking her as seriously. Instead of thinking of her as a professional, they may think that she’s a little goofy, or that she may not represent the company in the most favorable light when interacting with customers, or that she doesn’t have the maturity for that next promotion. “You could be sabotaging your own success as a professional,” I told her. She then explained that her husband had talked to her about the exact same issue. “How do I change that?” she asked me. The solution is simple: Change begins with self-awareness. Now that she is aware of this nervous habit, she can catch herself and begin changing. After a while, she will no longer tag a giggle onto the end of a sentence.

Let’s be clear: Laughter is good. Laughter in the workplace is good. Repetitive nervous laughter that detracts from your message is not good.

Do you have a behavioral quirk that – if done repeatedly – could be diminishing your professionalism? Do a quick scan of your behavior. Check for any nervous habits that are detracting from your message or distracting others. Once you become aware, you can and will change.

Will Wardrobe Engineering Save Mark Zuckerberg?

The world waited with great anticipation: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before the Congressional Commerce and Judiciary Committee was finally beginning on April 10, 2018. Zuckerberg was summoned to discuss Facebook’s “privacy” policy and data breaches, which left millions of Facebook users’ personal data exposed to global trolls.

Rather than focusing on what Zuckerberg was saying, the media and late night pundits focused on something quite different: The Suit. Zuckerberg had traded in his signature gray tee shirt, blue jeans and sneakers for a more corporate look. Headlines focused on The Suit. The Washington Post headline read: Mark Zuckerberg is one of the suits. Now he’d better learn to get comfortable in one.

As the news media clamored to get the best shot of the “new and improved” Zuckerberg, I expected a reporter from E News to pop up ala runway style and ask, “Who are you wearing today, Mark?” To which Zuckerberg would confidently reply, “Marc Jacobs. That’s Marc with a c.” The brilliance of his dazzling smile would shatter the camera lens as he continued walking to the hearing.

But I digress.

What the media is paying such close attention to is known as Wardrobe Engineering. Defined as “how clothing and accessories are used to create a certain image,” what image do you think Zuckerberg was going for? The “I’m not guilty” image? The “I’m a successful, responsible American entrepreneur” image? The “You can trust me” image? The “I’m just like you” image? The New York Times called it the “I’m sorry suit.” The Times even created a “greatest suits appearances” slide show just for The Suit. Only time will tell how The Suit is ultimately interpreted by Congress.

Every politician, titan of industry and celebrity knows how to effectively wardrobe engineer. We all know that color plays an important role when you represent a certain political party, like how often Republicans wear red and Democrats wear blue. It’s no accident. And red, white and blue, well, that is just so absolutely, positively American, and safe. Then everyone will love you and vote for you, right?

Will wardrobe engineering save Mark Zuckerberg, though? It will take a lot more than a stylish suit to convince Congress. Or will it?

Watching this event unfold in the national news, I was reminded of my favorite graduate-level course on rhetorical criticism. The course’s book, Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, was written by an academic communication scholar and rhetorical criticism expert, Dr. Sonja K. Foss. She defines rhetorical criticism as “a process of thinking about symbols, discovering how they work, why they affect us, and choosing to communicate in particular ways as a result of the options they present.” I remember vividly the moment when I understood the process of rhetorical criticism. It was as if a magic force cleansed my eyes so I could see more clearly and completely. When you look at the world and major events as they unfold, through the lens of rhetorical criticism, every piece of the picture – verbal and nonverbal communication, physical objects, and symbols – all take on a whole new meaning.

In her book, Foss emphasizes that rhetoric goes beyond just written and spoken discourse. According to Foss, symbolism is found in all forms of communication, such as “speeches, essays, conversations, poetry, novels, stories, television programs, films, art, architecture, plays, music, dance, advertisements, furniture, public demonstrations, and dress.” And I would add public hearings. In graduate-level rhetorical criticism classes right now, even though it’s nearing the end of the semester, students are sinking their teeth into this juicy news story and extracting meaning from every blink, gesture, vocal nuance, physical stance, room set-up, and yes, attire.

Professional image icon John T. Molloy wrote in his 1975 seminal book, Dress for Success, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” In Zuckerberg’s case, we’ll see where his wardrobe engineering leads him.

What professionals can learn from this very public hearing is that when it comes to telling your part of the story, it’s not just what The Suit looks like, it’s the meaning behind The Suit. A bigger question to ask is: What captures the essential, most important element: The truth?

Photo credit: Igor Ovsyannykov on

Communicate With Credibility

Young-Professional.490f209379970f055c2ee7e62629b438219Credibility is one of those intangibles in life that can change dramatically from moment to moment. Throughout your life – and your career – you will have many opportunities to compromise your credibility. Never compromise your credibility. The credibility that you enjoy today has taken years to build. Why risk throwing it all away? Protect your credibility. It is one of your greatest assets. Your credibility is built on the foundation of your personal and professional character, and your competence as a professional.

In their seminal book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their longitudinal research on leaders asked professionals how they felt when they were in the presence of truly great leaders. The top ten replies were: Capable. Challenged. Enthusiastic. Inspired. Motivated. Powerful. Proud. Repeated. Supported. Valued.

How do you communicate with credibility? These tips will help you to consistently position yourself as a professional.

Align verbal and nonverbal language. Listen to your words and intonation. Be aware of your nonverbal language.

Lead by listening. Practice active listening. Deliver an “SOS” to your brain – Silently Observe, Then Speak.

Make realistic promises and keep them. Think before you speak. Do what you say you will do.

Speak from the heart. Create a mindset of inclusion. Use compassionate, caring language.

Be yourself. Align your values and behavior. Don’t try to mimic someone else’s behavior. Be your most authentic self.

Be an expert. Enhance your knowledge base continuously. Be a resource. Share your knowledge with others.

Be honest. Frame what you’re sharing so it benefits the other person. Know the difference between using kid gloves (being gentle) and boxing gloves (being more assertive).

Be proactive. Ask people their preferred form of communication. Ask clarifying questions to gain understanding. Seek challenging assignments at work, then follow through to get the job done.

Be consistent. Don’t flip-flop. Don’t exhibit unpredictable behavior.

To gain – and maintain – your credibility requires a great deal of behind the scenes strategic thinking. Begin with a simple self-assessment. It’s worth the time and your constant attention.

United We Stand, United We Fall: A Lesson in Brand Ambassadorship

As a professional, your actions represent not only you…they also represent your company. You are a brand ambassador when you work with customers, speak at a national conference, or volunteer in the community. You are the brand, and all it stands for. You are the face of the company. One false move, like bad behavior, can stunt or end career success.

The recent United Airlines debacle demonstrated that actions speak volumes about who you are and what you value.

The United Airlines Flight 3711 incident, which occurred on Sunday, April 2, has been reported, analyzed and picked apart by the media, bloggers and regular folks like you and me. Here’s what happened: The flight was fully booked, and passengers were already seated. One passenger, Dr. David Dao, had been asked to relinquish his seat (which he had paid for) to make room for a United employee. He refused. As a result, Chicago Department of Aviation officers swooped in with brut force, handcuffed and carted Dr. Dao off the plane. In the process, his nose and a few teeth were broken. A video captured by another passenger immediately went viral. The rest, as they say, is history. In fact, it was an historic event.

It didn’t have to be this way. A moment of thought before taking an action would have resulted in an entirely different outcome…a more positive one…for everyone involved.

Days later, top headlines are still trending:

Newsweek: Why United Was Legally Wrong to Deplane David Dao

NBC News: United CEO: Doctor being dragged off plane was ‘watershed moment’

What would a good brand ambassador do? Here are a few thoughts:

Know what your brand stands for. Your brand is that one thing that represents who you are and what you stand for. First, United’s brand begins with its name, United. That one word creates a larger-than-life image of the company. What does United stand for? Second, you may or may not remember United Airlines’ famous tagline, “Fly the friendly skies.” Because of the brut force that was used to remove Dr. Dao from his seat, one might question, “Is United really friendly?” If United’s thought leaders had really, well, thought about this, they may have come to the conclusion that the action that was being considered didn’t fit with the United brand. But things didn’t play out that way. Every employee of United is a brand ambassador for the airline. And every employee of the Chicago Department of Aviation serves as a brand ambassador for the organization.

Do the right thing. Consider the public’s reaction once the video went viral. It was clear that everyone agreed that the situation was not handled properly. We have all been in situations where our gut screamed out to us “Don’t do it!!!!!” Yet, we ended up not listening to our intuition and lived to regret our poor choice. When your conscience speaks, listen.

If protocol is flawed, pitch it. “I was just following protocol” is not a good enough reason. Sure, United Airlines had a policy. All airlines have policies, procedures and protocol. Sometimes you need to look at protocol, look at the situation, consider the outcome, and ask if the protocol fits the situation and if the outcome is one you desire. If things don’t add up, it’s time to re-examine the protocol or throw it out completely in that situation. The incident has resulted in United Airlines changing its policy.

Take quick, responsible action. The leadership at United Airlines first offered a boilerplate response to the media, saying they were examining what had happened before commenting. A few days later, United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized and took full responsibility. This was too little too late. Two days after the incident, United’s stock had fallen by 4%, roughly $1.5 billion. Although the stock has regained some of its strength, United will carry this ding on its record forever.

Be strategic. In my workshops, I remind people how important it is to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the marketplace. Technology makes it so easy to do. If you want to get ahead in your career, you have to stay ahead of the competition. A change in the airline industry began shortly after the United Airlines incident. A CBS News headline says it all: “Three airlines change policies in wake of United’s passenger dragging incident.”

Build a culture of respect and compassion. You will never find yourself in an awkward situation or have to apologize for bad behavior if you treat every person that you meet with respect and compassion. More people recognize  that this is the best way to move forward together.

The United Airlines incident is already becoming an important case study for business schools, communication scholars, human resource professionals and enforcement officers. Hopefully this is one case where we will learn from mistakes and bring about positive change as brand ambassadors.

Gen X and Y: Dress Like a Pro

IScreen shot 2014-06-04 at 7.52.48 AMn 1978, John T. Malloy wrote the classic book, Dress for Success. The primary message from the book was this: Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have. For the younger generations X and Y, think of where you want to take your career, and dress the part.

It was a warm summer day. I entered the corporate headquarters of a highly successful IT company, checked in with the receptionist and waited for the staff person to escort me to the meeting room. Before she arrived, I heard a sound all to common in more casual work environments today: Squeak. Click. Squeak. Click. Squeak. Click. She was wearing – you guessed it – flip flops. She was an attractive young woman, recently graduated from college, with all the potential for dressing professionally.

flip-flopAs I scanned the rest of her attire, I quickly realized she was dressed more for the beach than for the work environment. Her skirt rose about 8 inches above her knees. Her tight top revealed way too much cleavage for 7:30 in the morning. I found myself wondering: How far will this young woman get in her career? Does she not see how other people may perceive her? If she’s not dressing professionally now, will people advance and promote her?

I fully understand that some work environments welcome casual attire. For some, beachwear is completely okay and even encouraged. My first impression of this company, though, fell down a few notches that day. When meeting and greeting people from outside the company, you still want to make a positive first impression. With this young woman, she was impressing me in a certain way, and it wasn’t good. I thought to myself, If I owned this company, I would never allow my employees to greet vendors or clients this way.

There is a very thin line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable professional attire in the workplace today. I err on the side of conservative. I remind young women that a close-fitting skirt (which most are these days) will creep up an average of three more inches when you sit down. You don’t need to be a math whiz to know where that skirt is going to end up! For young men, I encourage them to either own an iron and learn to iron their clothes or take them to the cleaners each week. Nothing destroys a positive first impression more than a wrinkled shirt and pants on a young man. If you think that the steam from your body as you exit the shower will magically press out the wrinkles in your shirt as you put it onto your body, you’re wrong. Only an iron will do it. So buy one!

With Baby Boomers retiring in great numbers in the years to come, a rather large window is opening up for Generations X and Y to move up the ladder of professional success at a much more rapid rate than we Boomers did. For Gen X: Dress the part and serve as a positive role model for the generation behind you. For Gen Y: Think about where you want to go in your career. Then take a look at your wardrobe. If you’re still dressing like you’re in college, it’s time to upgrade. There is nothing more attractive than young people who take their jobs seriously and dress the part for the career positions they want.

Question: How does your wardrobe position you in your career? Are you dressing like the future leader you want to be?

Baby Boomers: Remain Current and In Style


David Byrne’s Big Suit Circa 1980s

As a Baby Boomer, I am becoming increasingly aware of how other people perceive my age group. Seventy-six million strong, Baby Boomers have reshaped the workplace, providing greater opportunities for the generations that follow us. If you are a Baby Boomer and choose to remain in the workplace in the coming years rather than retire, ask yourself: Are you remaining current in your look as a professional? Or are you stuck in the 1980s, still wearing suits with shoulder pads twice the size of your body? If you are, burn them now. Don’t bother donating them to charity because they don’t want them either. It’s time to clean out your closet and update your look. When you remain current and in style, you elevate your level of professionalism.

I recently attended a fun afternoon at a friend’s home, enjoying an image consultant’s presentation. All attendees were asked to bring a favorite jacket or accessory. I chose my favorite robin’s egg blue suit jacket. The little voice inside my head had told me many times that it was outdated, yet, it remained in my closet. Sure enough, I tried it on in front of eight other women and their reaction was clear. “It makes you look old.” Ugh! I then modeled a suit jacket with a more tailored body and shorter cut and voila!…the reaction “WOW! You look fabulous!” resonated throughout the room. I heard the message loud and clear. It’s time to replace the old with the new.

I have seen many Baby Boomers like me in the workplace, wearing clothing that is either outdated or tired looking. The result: The people themselves look outdated. Suits today range in price from affordable $50-$100 new, on sale or at quality resale shops, up to several thousand dollars, depending on your taste (and budget). You can still look like a million dollars with limited funds.

How current are you? Take an afternoon to try on your professional wardrobe in front of a mirror. How does your wardrobe make you look? Youthful? Vibrant? Out of touch? By adding a few fashion forward pieces to your wardrobe each year, including scarves and jewelry for women and new shirts and ties for men, you can take off years from your life.

Now look at your hair style.

Men: If you want to look younger and more attractive, ditch the bad comb-over and shave your head. Yul Brynner started it – shaving his head – in 1951 for the lead role in The King and I and look where it took his acting career. He maintained that look for the rest of his life.

Women: If your hair is big in any way, then it’s stuck in the 80s. Ask your stylist to give you a more current hair cut and style. Do the same with your makeup. What are the current colors? Remember, powder blue eye shadow looked good on Twiggy back in the 1960s (and bright turquoise eye shadow looked good on Mimi on the Drew Carey Show for comic effect only). Ask a professional what make-up complements your coloring.

People will notice the difference in the “new and improved” you. They will most likely ask if you lost weight.

Your outward appearance is one way to demonstrate your level of professionalism. As you mature, remain current in your wardrobe choices so that you look vibrant, vital and stylish. Two questions: What are you doing to enhance your professional look? What simple, inexpensive changes are you making that will help you look more current and in style?

All due respect to David Byrne of the Talking Heads: Nobody wore the “big suit” better than you! I remain a huge fan.

Note: Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.


Protect Your Credibility

ThumbsUpYou will have many opportunities in your life to compromise your credibility. Don’t! The credibility that you enjoy today has taken years to build. Why risk throwing it all away? Protect it. It is one of your greatest assets, built on the foundation of your character and competence.

Credibility is a lifelong commitment.

Business mogul Warren Buffett says, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” With today’s social media platform, that five minutes quickly morphs into two seconds.

Credibility is one of those intangibles in life that can change dramatically from moment to moment. Within those moments, you will have choices. Credibility first showed up in the national media in the late 1990s ranging from political and religious scandals to corporate and celebrity debacles. Today, the news continues to be filled with people who made poor choices (and who knew better). When we examine any case, it comes down to one thing: Choice. Each leader or organization had a choice to make: the high road or the low road, truth or deception. Always, always take the high road. When you think no one will know or notice, correct yourself then and there. Your conscience will guide your decisions.

In their book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their research asked professionals how they felt when they were in the presence of truly great leaders. The top ten replies were: Capable. Challenged. Enthusiastic. Inspired. Motivated. Powerful. Proud. Respected. Supported. Valued. Do you believe people feel this way about you? How do you demonstrate your credibility? How does your behavior align with your actions? What could you do to enhance your credibility? In everything you do, choose credibility. You will sleep better at night.

A mantra to consider: “I choose to protect my credibility.”

Are You Managing Impressions?

MasksScottChanFreeDigitalPhotosnetHow are you presenting yourself to others? What impression are you making? Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the social role theory, which states that we manage other people’s impressions of us by how we present ourselves to them. In his 1959 groundbreaking book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman says that as we manage other people’s impressions of us (he coined the phrase impression management), we assume and play many roles, much like actors on stage.

Impression management is defined as “a person altering or changing his/her self-presentation to create appearances to satisfy particular audiences.” Goffman says that people are the actors “performing” on a stage, using a variety of props if they choose to use them, and that they can perform for an audience or just for themselves. The essence of impression management theory is that we all play various roles in our lives. We often play several different roles throughout each day.

Roles have certain clothing and accessories that accompany them. Think of the costumes actors wear as they perform. Some roles are more closely aligned to who we are underneath it all, and other roles are a far stretch from who we truly are. It’s why we often buy a new suit to wear to an important client presentation; we want to embrace the role of a successful business executive. Goffman also says that impression management can either “hide negative attributes or enhance a person’s status” or “increase or decrease a person’s position of status.” For instance, your role as spouse is very different from your role as supervisor at work. You may manage impressions less at home than at work because you have the freedom to be your true self at home. The roles that we play require us to wear masks. Behind the mask is our real identity. With roles come expectations. As a supervisor, for example, there are certain expectations that come with that role. For instance, it is expected that the supervisor will oversee the work of direct reports, will keep in constant contact with them to measure their progress, and will offer guidance when needed.

It is important for us to understand impression management because we assume so many different roles — business professional, volunteer, community leader, friend, spouse, committee member or neighbor — and so do the people around us. Some many people manage their impressions so tightly that they become something other than who they truly are inside. When managing impressions, remember to be your authentic self. How are you presenting yourself? How are you managing impressions?

Image courtesy of Scott Chan,