Safe at Home – Watch Your Words

by Jennifer Miller on March 28, 2011

in Communication, Leadership

Dwane Lay who blogs at Lean HR is hosting a unique HR Carnival this week. He’s asked all carnival contributors to write a post with the same title: “Safe at Home.” We’re to write about what that title means to us personally and publish it today. The carnival featuring all submissions with this title will go live this Wednesday at Dwane’s blog.


In my consulting practice, I’m often called upon to informally mentor or coach emerging leaders. My observation of these up-and-coming young professionals is that they want to be taken seriously by senior management. They’re smart, they’re talented and they want to show the decision-makers that they have what it takes to succeed in the management ranks. And for the most part, they do have what it takes.

There is one sticking point for a few of these upstarts: they haven’t learned how to distinguish between “social talk” and “work talk”. Social talk is the stuff you say to your friends when you’re hanging with them at the local pub. Work talk is the stuff you say to those same friends at work, only you clean it up a bit. The things you can safely say at home (or at the pub) are NOT the same things you can say at work.

Common sense? Not necessarily.

I was recently hired by a CEO to do an organizational scan. This required me to interview key staff members. During one interview, a sharply dressed man in his mid 20’s confidently sauntered into the conference room and introduced himself as Kyle. I had been told that Kyle was a top performer with management aspirations. From the outset of our interview, it was clear that Kyle was driven, personable and smart. To my eyes, though, he lacked one essential management trait—polish. Even though he was nicely dressed, the stuff that was coming out of his mouth was enough to blow my hair back (and not in a good way). He did acknowledge that he sometimes made people “crap their pants” with his forthrightness, but he saw this as a favorable thing, believing that he was “keeping it real”.

Kyle had yet to learn a very important lesson in navigating the murky waters of demonstrating promotability—how to be authentic, yet professional. He felt that by talking with people as “buddies” he was to relating to them on their level. This is true to an extent; nobody likes to hear someone spouting robot-like corporate jargon. At the same time, people who want to be seen as having leadership potential need to model impeccable professional standards. In the minds of many senior managers, this means speaking professionally, not dropping the f-bomb.

If you’re a leader who is mentoring would-be managers, please help them understand this unwritten rule of workplace upward mobility: the words they use may be safe at home, but that does not ensure that those same words (and by association, their professionalism) will be judged as favorably in the workplace.

photocredit: © Nikola Bilic

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Juengling March 28, 2011 at 4:09 pm

You really nailed this one down tight and it is wonderful wisdom for leaders and mentors. As a former C level exec, I also learned everything leadership did, said or modeled was watched like a hawk… and boy, did I make some painful mistakes. Great post and great information; thanks.

Jennifer March 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm

@Jay – wouldn’t it be great if we could help out graduating young professionals?

@Laura – I agree, the “reality” of Kyle’s language was a little too harsh. Although, we have executives in video clips now dropping the f-bomb, so it’s likely that a recent college grad may think that’s OK in certain circumstances.

@Craig – you are so correct that senior management’s every move tends to be scrutinized. Rightly or wrongly, it’s par for the course.

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