Confusing Your Mode

Talent Management

April 9, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

Successful people operate in two modes: professional and relaxed. But a leader needs to be a consistent role model and assume people are always paying attention.

In professional mode, we’re at our image-conscious best. We pay attention to what we say, how we look, whom we must serve, and whom we can’t afford to displease. In relaxed mode, we’re less guarded. It’s the difference between who we are on weekends and weekdays.

Our mojo is at risk when we shift from professional to relaxed mode without making everyone aware of the shift; we may not be aware of it ourselves.

I once worked with a senior executive at a large retail chain who had this problem. She had all the attributes to succeed the current CEO: dedicated, hardworking, got results, looked professional, acted like a leader and cared about people. She was the total package except for one thing: Get a couple of drinks under her belt and she would start blasting funny, cynical remarks.

It wasn’t the alcohol, I concluded, it was the situation. Nor was it an occasional lapse — there was a pattern. She would be the perfect executive all day, but after most of the employees had gone home, she’d call her friends into her office and let down her guard. There’s nothing wrong with cynicism — we’d be nuts if we didn’t harbor some dark, funny thoughts about other people — but most of us keep them to ourselves, or express them with extreme selectivity.

It was a sign of the CEO’s faith in this executive that when he found out about this behavior he hired me to help this person change. The ?rst thing I told the executive was “This is really stupid behavior. Please don’t do this again.”

She reflected upon what she had done and soberly agreed. Then we went through what triggered this behavior, so she could avoid it in the future. We identi?ed a contrast in her life between relaxed and professional mode: She’d get in a room with her loyal subordinates after work and assume anything she said was “just between us friends.” It never occurred to her that trust could be broken, that one of her buddies would tell a co-worker. Even worse, when the stories were retold, the sarcastic humor was sometimes lost, and she just came off as angry, not funny.

In professional mode, she almost never made mistakes. In relaxed mode, her judgment weakened. When you’re in a leadership position, everything you say is gossip fodder. Nor did she realize she was giving approval to her employees to mimic her behavior.

I don’t usually put much stock in why people do stupid things. I’m only interested in getting them to stop. But in this case, the cause was revealing: she turned sarcastic in relaxed mode because it made people laugh and made her look clever.

Helping this executive change was easy. I told her, “Avoid operating in relaxed mode. Assume people are always paying attention and that you, a top executive, need to be a consistent role model as a leader.” I reminded her that a lot of people assume the professional you is somehow “unreal,” that the “real” you appears when you let your guard down. To be a truly great leader, she would have to close the gap between her professional and relaxed selves, if only to eliminate the confusion over which was really her.

I suspect all of us could step back and analyze how often we drift off professional mode into relaxed mode at work. Some do it fluidly, so no one notices the difference. Some do it abruptly and without warning, so the differences are unsettling to our co-workers. If you look around your company, you’ll see the executives you most admire tend to be those who, with consistent discipline, never drift out of professional mode. It’s not that they can’t crack a joke or laugh at themselves or kick back at the end of the day. But they have clear ideas about their identity, achievement and reputation. They have chosen a role for themselves, and they rarely go off script. They are professionals.