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Redefining Professionalism

Reconsidering a good term gone bad.

Key points

  • Professionalism was and is a central competency for becoming a psychologist.
  • Challenges in defining professionalism lead to vague, arbitrary, and shifting applications.
  • Professionalism is used as a barrier to exclude women, minoritized populations, non-binary, LGBTQ, disabled, and others from the field.
  • A reconsideration and redefinition are required for professionalism to have value as a concept without creating unintended consequences.

Professionalism is like many terms in psychology that once were unreservedly positive but are now problematic. Words like merit, leadership, talent, intelligence, elite, and excellence all denote desirable attributes.

But in practice, these words are often defined and applied in a way to specifically exclude subgroups. For example, if intelligence is defined solely by performance on the Graduate Record Exam, then issues such as access, socialization to multiple-choice test performance, registration fees, and other factors exclude some people due to the narrow definition. If elite is defined as attending high status/high tuition universities and authoring multiple scientific publications, then students who are of modest income or cannot volunteer to work in productive research labs can never be considered elite.

To a large degree, most of these words have fallen out of favor due to a variation of Goodhart’s law “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” That is, as these phrases have been operationalized, measured, and used to target, the result is the exclusion of some groups of people and individuals so that the words and concepts have lost meaning and value.

Professionalism may be the most complicated of these once-positive terms. Clearly, this remains a valued idea as the newest edition of the accreditation training standards for the Canadian Psychological Association (2022) includes professionalism as a foundational competency, along with Individual, social, and cultural diversity; Indigenous interculturalism; Evidence-based knowledge and methods; Interpersonal skills and communication; Reflective practice; Ethical standards, laws, and policies; and Interdisciplinary collaboration and service settings. CPA defines professionalism as the “development of professional identity and professional behavior.” This vague definition creates challenges in operationalization and measurement.

Central markers of professionalism often include behaviors such as timeliness, reliability, following professional standards, and implementing best practices. Overall, conscientiousness is an important aspect of functioning as a professional. Valuing conscientiousness in training is a laudable goal. Yet, these behaviors have more to do with evidence-based practices; ethical, legal, and policies; and collaboration competencies than professionalism. The problem is when markers of professionalism are interpreted and expanded by people with the power to do so.

Vague definitions lead to multiple interpretations and inevitable abuse. Peripheral markers of professionalism have been notoriously used as a cover to exclude. Prototypical definitions of professional dress, language, decorum, and workplace behavior center on male, middle-class, and white values. Any variance from business suit, conservative hair and makeup, unaccented speech, stoic emotional demonstrations, and reserved behaviors may be accepted by some people but are usually considered deviations from standard professionalism.

Arbitrary determinations of when the degree of variance is too much to be acceptable are often used to exclude women, minoritized populations, non-binary, first-generation, disabled, LGBTQ, and others from the white-centered community of professionals. What was once a critical concept for psychologists is now widely thought of as a cover for homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of exclusion and has lost credibility as a valid or useful concept. The concept of professionalism can have value but requires redefinition to avoid continuing to harm.

To steer clear of Goodhart’s Law or a variation of it, then consideration of the goals and context to which professionalism is applied is required. What is to be achieved by the set of behaviors or attributes that have been labeled as professional? What is the context in which these behaviors occur? I propose that the goal is to support the best possible work and provides a shorthand form of communication to clients, patients, students, colleagues, and other stakeholders. The result is a process rather than a static and conservative but arbitrary definition of professionalism.

Conscientious application of evidence-based practices; ethical, legal, and policies; and collaboration competencies are required, but the periphery markers such as dress, language, decorum, and workplace behavior are important and help define the totality of being a professional. How these concepts manifest is based on goals and professional contexts. Determining productive and inclusive professionalism is about the mindful consideration of the following:

  • Safety. What professional dress, appearance, language, decorum, behavior, workplace relationships, and other manifestations of professionalism make for the safest possible environment for stakeholders (e.g., clients, patients, families, teachers, community, researchers, students, policymakers)?
  • Effectiveness. What manifestations of professionalism lead to the most effective outcomes for stakeholders?
  • System culture. What manifestations of professionalism lead to the most effective, efficient, productive, and positive workplace and system of service delivery?
  • Consumers and audiences. What manifestations of professionalism most effectively communicate competence, caring, responsibility, authenticity, empathy, and value-added performance to stakeholders?
  • Personal. What manifestations of professionalism make work-life sustainable, authentic, enjoyable, balanced, and rewarding?

Decentering current prototypical standards of professionalism from narrow definitions involve a cultural shift. Analysis of the goals for safety, effectiveness, system culture, consumers and audiences, and personal contexts is a starting point for creating a productive process. Through these questions, the ideas about using professionalism as a method of exclusion begin to peel away.

Professionalism is an important consideration for psychologists. But the idea of professionalism centered on a rigid, quiet, bearded white male in a tweed jacket with elbow patches or some arbitrary standard that every person in power redefines need to go away. Professionalism is a process that can only be defined and interpreted in a specific context to achieve specific goals. And only as a process and not a static term will the concept of professionalism return to being useful.

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