Tennis players shaking hands after a match.

The dark side to professionalism

31 January 2022

The article at a glance

There is a ‘Professionalism Paradox’ that increases vulnerability to conflict of interest, says a new paper by Sunita Sah, a Fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School.

There is a ‘Professionalism Paradox’ that increases vulnerability to conflict of interest, says a new paper by Sunita Sah, a Fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Sunita Sah.
Professor Sunita Sah

In sports as in business, “professionalism” is seen as an overwhelmingly positive virtue: phrases like “professional view” or “be a pro” imply a high level of integrity and judgment to go along with qualifications and ability.

Yet a new paper just published in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives identifies a “dark side” to professionalism that can be damaging to organisations: a high self-concept of professionalism often coexists with a “shallow” notion of the idea and an unsubstantiated belief that professionals can self-regulate more than non-professionals. This can lead to greater unethical behaviour and increased vulnerability to conflicts of interest.

The paper by Sunita Sah, a Fellow in the Operations & Technology Management subject group at Cambridge Judge Business School, calls for redefining professionalism as a deeper concept that includes a set of “consistently repeated practices rather than a character trait”.

“The conclusion of the study is that ‘professionalism’ in the workplace has too often relied only on cultivating certain intrinsic values, and this has come at the expense of policies and other extrinsic controls,” says Sunita, director of the Academic Leadership Institute at Cornell University and a professor at Cornell’s College of Business, who teaches on the Executive Education and Master of Accounting programmes at Cambridge Judge.

“This approach may actually have a contrary effect to the higher standards that the word ‘professionalism’ is designed to connote.”

Challenging a one-sided view of ‘professionalism’

The study was launched to test some of the assumptions behind the concept of “professionalism”, because little is known about how people with a high sense of professionalism actually behave in response to ethical dilemmas.

“The current view on professionalism in organisations is one-sided and thus limited, as it views professionalism only as a desirable trait,” says Sah in her paper, entitled “The professionalism paradox: a sense of professionalism increases vulnerability to conflicts of interest”.

“Contrary to this view, I argue that a high sense of professionalism can have a counterintuitive effect, by which it can lead to greater bias and unethical behaviour. This can cause dysfunctional behaviour in organisations and lead to negative outcomes.”

To examine how frequently conflicts of interest can arise in an organisation, Sah asked 400 managers whether they had been offered gifts at work. Nearly two-thirds (62%) across a variety of industries said they had.

“Gifts can promote relationship building within and between organisations, but they also represent a threat to organisations if they distort managers’ judgments such that managers work

in their own self-interest and in the interest of the gift-giver rather than focusing on their responsibilities to all clients,” Sah says. “Thus, the decision to accept a gift creates a conflict of interest.”

A high sense of professionalism can cause ‘double harm’

Sah outlines a two-stage model to safeguard against such conflicts: The first is to avoid accepting the gift to begin with to preclude future feelings of reciprocity; and the second to self-regulate the influence of the conflict of interest after accepting a gift through either attempting to block or neutralise the influence.

The paper argues, however, that a high sense of professionalism can cause “double harm” to one’s ability to prevent influence from such conflicts of interest.

Sah demonstrates how the more professional people feel they are (as in their perceived ability to make impartial objective decisions) the more likely they will be to accept gifts in the confidence that they can self-regulate the influence of such gifts (thus bypassing the first safeguard). A high sense of professionalism can also reassure managers that they are capable of warding off unwanted influence, leading them to scrutinise the effects of gifts less and thus forming more favourable impressions of gift-givers (resulting in failure of the second safeguard).

Professionalism has evolved from occupation to conduct

In the paper, Sah traces the origins of the concept of professionalism: it was initially used to describe traditional professions such as medicine and law with rigorous training and high barriers to entry, but then evolved over time from a feature of a specific occupation to a “general individual-level concept” relating to how one conducts oneself.

“We need a different way to ‘professionalise’ our work environments,” Sah concludes. “Norms of professionalism should not be about the self-perceived ability to self-regulate, mitigate favouritism, and eliminate bias (which is often unobservable and out of conscious control) but about observable repeated behaviours and a deep understanding of the concept.”

This article was published on

31 January 2022.