Professional Presence: The Role of Culture and Context

What is Professional Presence?

A person has professional presence if they conduct themselves in a confident and professional way.

Being “professional” typically means keeping your conversations focused on work, and avoiding personal or potentially sensitive matters.

However, professionalism also can mean many different things depending on your work environment and office culture.

Some offices are casual, others are more formal.

professional presence

The Critical Importance of Context

If you act casual in a setting that expects more formality, you may certainly be considered “unprofessional.”

And, vice versa, behaving too formally in an office that is casual and laidback runs the risk of turning people off and (ironically) making it harder to get things done.

Cultural context makes a big difference.

Take something as simple as eye contact. In most Western cultures, eye contact is a sign of respect and attentiveness.

But in Japanese culture, eye contact (especially with superiors) is often considered rude and may indicate aggression.

Other behaviors that might vary from culture to culture may include taking up physical space, speaking with a loud voice, expressiveness or flourishing language.

Even if your office doesn’t have a variety of cultures, it’s critical to understand the dominant norms and protocols, since they may vary significantly among teams, industries, professions, and levels of seniority.

Zappos Culture vs Blackstone Culture

For two very different office cultures and examples of “professionalism,” consider Zappos and Blackstone.

The Zappos Family - How They Work
Mondays at Blackstone

Zappos and Blackstone are both extremely successful companies within their industries.

And they are examples of very different cultures, and therefore very different ideas of “professionalism.”

A person who succeeds at Blackstone would probably struggle in the loose atmosphere of Zappos.

And vice versa, someone who thrives at Zappos might chafe under the sober formality of Blackstone.

professional presence and culture

Determinants of Professional Presence

Let’s look at some other factors that affect the best version of professional presence.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it will help you start thinking clearly about your organizational culture.

  1. Creativity vs Structure: Are employees in your department encouraged to contribute innovative and disruptive ideas? Or are they expected to be disciplined and follow through on guidance from superiors?
  2. Noise Levels: Is your office a loud and boisterous place? Does it feel like a party? Or is it as quiet as a library?
  3. Individual vs Group Work: Are people mostly individual contributors? Do they spend long stretches working through problems on their own? Or are there frequent meetings and collaboration sessions? Are people expected to provide fully-formed ideas, or merely to get engaged and active in group discussions and collaborative efforts?
  4. Punctuality and Deadlines: Do meetings start exactly on time, or is there some flexibility? And if so, how much flexibility? How much blowback will there be if you need to extend a project deadline?
  5. Titles and Rankings: How much weight do titles carry in your organization? Can junior members easily reach out to more senior members? Do people give more respect or credence to those with fancier titles, or does it not make much difference in day-to-day interactions?
  6. Assertive vs Passive Behavior: Does assertiveness seem to be rewarded? Or are people mostly expected to fall in line and follow directions?
  7. Clothing and Attire: Dress codes across the corporate world have become much more casual in recent years. But the typical attire in your organization still offers valuable signals. If people generally wear business casual or semiformal attire, that indicates more formality than leggings, hoodies, and shorts and sandals.
  8. What Behavior is Rewarded and Praised? Take a look at people that seem to get lots of acknowledgement from the company. Are they rewarded for their individual contributions and leadership, or for their attitude and “team spirit”? Do they tend to be extraverted and gregarious, regularly connecting with lots of people? Or are they typically more quiet, calm and independent?

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of “what is professional presence?”

It is simply a question of what’s effective in your office setting, and what is meaningful to you as a professional.

Universal Best Practices for Professional Presence

Once you have a clear sense of the norms and limitations within your organizational culture, consider best practices for professional presence.

Avoid Gossip and Personal Politics:

Every workplace has gossipy behavior and personality clashes. Accept it as a part of working life, but don’t participate in that kind of conversation.

By avoiding or walking away from those kinds of discussions, you send the signal that you are focused on work and being productive.

This helps build your professional image.

Have a Positive, Solutions-Focused Attitude:

It’s a cliche that managers “don’t want problems, they want solutions.”

But it nevertheless remains true that if you can focus your interactions with people on new initiatives, solutions to problems, and showing a “can-do” attitude, you will have a much stronger professional presence.

Justin Aquino