My wife has a bee in her bonnet. Several actually, but the one that gets her most is the lack of professionalism she comes across in everyday life.

Businesses that tell you something will be available at a certain time when clearly, in retrospect, it was never going to be. People in power who refuse to accept accountability for their area of responsibility when things go wrong. People who tell you something is true when they just really do not know.

All of these circumstances irritate her. They irritate me too, although I am more prone to wonder why they are not professional. Maybe they don’t even have a concept of what it is to be professional or perhaps they know what it is but they don’t value it.

A quotation by Frank Tyger sums up professionalism well. “Professionalism is knowing how to do it, when to do it and doing it.” Too many organisations and people fail the last test by this quotation on professionalism and some fail all three.

Being professional is an attitude that can be learnt. Professionalism has some fairly basic behavioural components.

Honesty and integrity are the cornerstone behaviours of professionalism. Being fair, truthful, keeping one’s word, meeting commitments and not being afraid of debate about topics one has knowledge about.

Hard on their heels come reliability and accountability. One must be accountable not only for our own area of expertise but also for those who work for us. They are responsible for what they do, but their leaders are accountable for what they do.

Accountability also extends to one’s profession especially if that profession has published ethics by which they work. Doctors, accountants and directors of companies come to mind. Inherent in the accountability is reliability in meeting commitments, completing assignments and accepting accountability for errors.

A corollary of accountability is knowing one’s limits. To be able to answer a question with the answer, “I don’t know” and meeting one’s inherent commitments by following it up with “But I will find out”.

Many people seem to think being professional is to be seen to know every thing. In my experience that is only close to reality for a few geniuses in our midst. A true professional knows what they do not know. They do not assume or generalise. A true professional seeks out facts, uses facts and learns from incidents when the “facts”, as they were known at the time, prove to be wrong.

Professionals have a respect for others. They have a respect that is non-discriminatory and treat all people with regard for their personal worth and dignity.

Professionals listen. They listen to show respect through empathy and to gain information which through analysis they can turn into probable facts.

In listening, professionals will seek to understand the filters that people of different upbringing, thinking styles, cultures and emotional states will use when they respond to their questions.

Professionals will try to understand their own bias that occurs due to the filters they use. Professionals will paraphrase to obtain clarity.

Self improvement by enthusiastic participation in training events and cross functional teams is a hallmark of a professional. More importantly, professionals seek to learn from their mistakes by, in part, seeking feedback on their performance from as wide a community as possible.

Professionals will analyse the consequences of their actions including the unintended consequences, against their intended consequences.

Professionals will be altruistic. That is, they will have more regard for the facts and other people than for their own regard. They will advocate, based on facts and logic, for actions to be taken to reach a known goal.

Why is it that being professional seems to be such an unpopular pastime, one might wonder? It does not seem to be too hard and on the face of it, the characteristics of a professional seem to be desirable.

When faced with questions like that, I find the most obvious answers are usually correct.

The obvious answer is because it is not easy and being less than professional is easier. A question for leaders is “Do you make it easy for people to be professional?”

Do you reward honesty or what you want to hear? Do you reward clear thinking or quick answers? Do you reward professional behaviour over amateur behaviour? Do you reward people who say “I don’t know, but I will find out”?

Do you reward substance over form? Do you question good news as vigorously as bad news? Do you paper over unprofessional acts in order to be seen as being “nice”?

Leaders get the level of professionalism in their teams that they demand. Leaders set the tone, develop the framework and build the sense of worth for being professional.

The question for leaders then, is, “Are you professional?”