We all know that style matters in business. And though it's hard to describe or define, there are unwritten boundaries about what falls within the realms of acceptable style. What makes this interesting and relevant here is that style changes over time, changes which become particularly striking when you look across generational barriers.
Just as parents have battled with their children over haircuts and clothing styles forever, so do bosses and their usually younger stuff get into conflicts over what counts as “professional” style or clothing or behavior. ( The word “professional” has become such a bizarrely broad catch-all for policing just about any kind of behavior that it’s worthy of a post of it’s own).
In one of my previous jobs, flip-flops became an odd sticking point. For some, they signified a careless disrespect of the workplace. For other (usually, but not always, younger) colleagues, they were a mark of emulation of well-known creative thinkers. An issue that was reflected on the national scene when college athletes wore flip flops to the White House.
But in many ways, the changes in clothing and appearance are dramatic and obvious. The more subtle and harder to document but much more interesting changes occur around the etiquette of professional relationships.
In my experience, the business “style” of the former generation was and is rooted in sincerity. Important conversations, business-forging conversations are generally held in a tone of sentimental seriousness (care, respect, trust) with a touch of tough-love (bottom-line, end-of-the-day). Don't get me wrong, these are all good things, but they can sound a little tinny to the X’ers of my generation who have a hard time saying how much they “care” about anything. We care too, we just prefer to express it differently, usually with a little more humor.
This is tricky territory to speak about on the fly. It requires a broader sample to see if it holds up. In fact, I hope someone somewhere is doing a full-blown sociology of business-etiquette to document how these behaviors and attitudes really shift over time
Which brings me to my original point: one of the surprisingly fun parts about working for a small company, run by your peers, rather than the parent's of your peers, is that your style of respect and authority and “professionalism” is, more or less, the style of your company. Which means fewer debates about flip flops and the proper and professional way to behave.
It also means you can, more or less, use your own instincts and judgment rather than impersonating a style that belongs to someone else. It means you can build relationships on your own terms, in your own voice: one that makes so much sense to you that it's simply yours. You can just act normal rather than "professional."
It's maybe obvious but worth noting again: there is value and surprising pay-offs to surrounding yourself with people who share your professional style.