What is a professional narrative? How do we know when we have one? And do we even need one?
Louise Clifton explores how values, voice and purpose shape our individual and collective narratives, and how these reflect who we are and what we do.
I saw this tweeted recently. The tweet was sharing research suggesting that children were more interested in science when they think of it as an action (‘doing science’) rather than as an identity (‘being a scientist’).
I’d never considered this division before, seeing ourselves through the lens of either ‘what we do’ or ‘who we are’, and not somewhere in between.
Surely some part of what we do is informed by who we are?”
I began to question this: surely some part of what we do is informed by who we are? Or are they really this divorced from one another? Can we, or should we, distinguish between being and doing? And what is it that makes one more attractive than the other?
I couldn’t untangle these questions, and maybe they’re not even the right ones to be asking. But in the thick of all this, I did see one thing I recognised. That to find clarity and cohesion between who we are and what we do, a secure footing, planted solidly in a professional narrative, could help to break through the thicket.
But what is a professional narrative? How do we know when we have one? And do we even need one?
A professional narrative is the culmination of understanding and expressing who we are (our values and voice) and how we live this out at work. It doesn’t speak of our outputs, but of our purpose, and how we apply, live and communicate this through everything that we do.
If, when reading this, you think to yourself ‘aha! I know my values, and how I live these out in my work’ then this isn’t the article for you. But if you’re curious, and not sure what your professional narrative looks like and how it could be helpful, then start here, with values.
Values are the expression of what we believe in.”
Values are the expression of what we believe in. They are the core tenets that shape who we are, the way we work and the way we lead others.
Our values are the result of our own unique journeys through life: where we come from, our families, friends, culture, professional ethos and passions. These may be things we have only rarely, if ever, shared at work and which can be challenging to articulate; this is because they really matter to us.
In a professional setting, it can be daunting to reveal this much of ourselves and so how we choose to do this is important (see here for a technique). Yet in disclosing more about what shapes us, we help others understand our motivations, why we do what we do. It enables us to show more authenticity, because people will understand that what we do is driven, in some way, by what matters to us most.
More broadly for our organisations, bringing our values into the workplace sets the tone for the people we work with and lead. We encourage others to not only understand us better, but to seek out how they see and express their own values too, and when we’re nurturing cohorts of future leaders, this can only be a good thing.
Voice is about how we use language to express our values through our work.”
Voice isn’t about how loud, how often, where or when we speak. Voice is about how we use language to express our values through our work. It’s an essential part of a professional narrative, because it’s how we use language to connect with the people we work with, influence and lead.
Whilst it’s obvious that how we use language affects how others see us, it’s worth unpicking. For example, it’s easy to slip into organisational speak – language that is used as shorthand for people in an organisation, department or team. When we copy standardised sayings or behaviours, we risk losing voices that bring diversity of thought and innovation. It’s easy for confidence to fall, because diverse opinions, drawn from people’s unique professional experiences, become outliers to the norm. Our ears become tuned into what we expect to hear. When this happens, we risk losing voices, that when used with care and thought, could enrich the culture of our organisation.
For individuals, the way we use language can be the difference between building strong, resilient connections with others, or at worst damaging trust in one another. For those we lead, we can use language to build people up, or tear them down. When we need to influence people, they will know when we are being sincere, and see through swagger.
The bottom line is, to create trusting connections with others, we need to be genuine about how we communicate with them.
Purpose is the driving force behind why we do what we do.”
Purpose is the driving force behind why we do what we do. It’s the sticky yet powerful thing that will encourage people to get on board with our vision, or that can drive a wedge between people when our vision doesn’t align with how they see the world.
To nurture a purpose that resonates, it’s critical to have a foundation based on values, and to express these values clearly using language that is true to who we are. In doing so, we can create trusting connections with others, because what we say and who we are is reflected in what we do.
If we were to look at an example, we might turn our gaze to Glasgow Caledonian’s University for the Common Good. Their purpose is clear, and how they live this out more so. Delivered through a common good curriculum and social innovation stream, their purpose immerses all aspects of the University’s being.
Creating a professional narrative
This journey – seeking out our values, integrating these more closely with our language, and using it to solidify a professional or institutional purpose – requires self-reflection, honesty, and time. When we put this all into practice, our professional narrative is what evolves.
If we can find the connecting thread that weaves our values, voice and purpose together, then we can fulfil the vision of the future we have for ourselves and for our organisations.”
We can use our professional narrative to show others the vision of the world we want to create, and encourage them to join us. For this reason, a professional narrative isn’t just about being or doing, because to be effective and to connect with others we need to show people who we are, what drives us, and put this into our everyday actions.
Being and doing are two parts of a whole; and hollow without each other. Where it’s easy to see a division between the two, if we can find the connecting thread that weaves our values, voice and purpose together, then we can fulfil the vision of the future we have for ourselves and for our organisations.
Notes and techniques
If you enjoyed this blog, you might like this further reading:
Dare to Lead (2018) by Brene Brown
Hunter S Thompson’s Letter on Finding your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life, featured in Farnham Street Blog
Any autobiography that inspires you
How to be yourself at work blog
A technique to better understand your values
In our work, we use an activity to get people thinking about their values called ‘I am from…’ (or for teams, ‘we are from’). We invite people to complete the sentence with words that tells us about themselves and what they stand for.
Exercises like this are gateways to identifying the things that really matter to us, and I don’t mean the obvious choices such as working with integrity, respect etc – these should be a standard. I mean the ones that have really shaped who we are, reflect how we see ourselevs and that drive us professionally and personally. Such as:
I am from…a desire to understand others
I am from…a complex upbringing
I am from…many languages, places and homes
We posed this question to Dr Jane Rand, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at York St John University; you can read what she wrote here: Just being.
Finding individual, team and institutional narratives
If you’d like to find out more about how we can partner with you to develop individual, team, departmental and institutional narratives, take a look at our bespoke programmes.
Based on ‘What’s your professional narrative?’ published in the AUA’s Newslink issue number 92