Shifting Into Neutral

Sometimes it seems like Marshall Goldsmith is everywhere. He is authoring books, providing stewardship to the most powerful leaders on the planet, headlining prime-time conferences, producing a YouTube video every seven minutes, etc., etc., etc.!

blog_photo_doc_goldsmithAnd, pretty much every time we see Marshall doing whatever he happens to be doing at the moment, we smile. We smile because “way back when” (early 1980s), Marshall began his career at The Center for Leadership Studies. We smile because no one honored his relationship with Dr. Hersey over the years more than Marshall (publicly or privately). And, we smile because very few thought leaders in our industry have ever possessed Marshall’s ability to make “the difficult” seem so very “doable.”

There are a number of examples we could call on here to illustrate that last point, but as we find ourselves in the time of year when many of us are considering some manner of resolution, we are reminded of a term Marshall acquainted us with called “shifting into neutral.” As presented in his best-selling book “What Got You Here … Won’t Get You There …,” the concept is primarily intended for mid-level managers that aspire to take the next step up the ladder to the “C-suite,” but we feel his guidance has far-reaching applicability.

As such, we would ask you to consider resolutions to be nothing more than “personal change initiatives.” And, the “resolution scoreboard” is not pretty! Forty-five percent of us make them every January — and less than 8% of us actually see them through. Why is that? Research (a.k.a., Googling) suggests the primary reason resolutions fail is that people “bite off far more than they can chew.” They seek to transform themselves in one way or another, and drastically underestimate both the time and the effort that transformation will require.

Keeping all of that in mind, the example Marshall uses to explain “shifting into neutral” is worth repeating. Suppose you enter the New Year and aspire to become a nicer person. In preparation, you make a list of all the things you would need to do make that vision become a reality:

  • “I will be aware of my nonverbals at all times and smile — pretty much all day — no matter what”
  • “I will say ‘please’ whenever I need or want anything no matter what it is”
  • “I will say ‘thank you’ whenever anybody gives me anything”
  • “I will compliment others profusely”
  • “In essence, I will embark on a journey to become somebody else!”

Even with the very best of intentions, plans like these are prematurely “kicked to the curb.” They very quickly become intimidating shackles that are second-guessed the minute one of the resolutions is employed and immediate positive results are not forthcoming. It is akin to the well-intended overweight former athlete that declares, as of January 1st, he will never drink beer again and has officially become a vegan! After three weeks of semi-strict adherence, on Super Bowl Sunday, you can usually find him within arm’s reach of the keg at a neighborhood blow-out — with a plate full of sliders!

So, what does “shifting into neutral” look like? If you want to become nicer, all you really need to do is “stop being a jerk!” Consider the tactical brilliance with this actionable approach! You do not need to learn something new. You do not need to start holding yourself to a set of standards you have never held yourself to before. You simply need to:

  • Keep your mouth shut: When somebody challenges an idea you offer up in a meeting, avoid the tendency (that for whatever reason has become second nature for you) to treat an opposing point of view like an unwarranted act of aggression. You don’t have to smile, say “thank you,” or agree. Just avoid the impulse to chastise or elevate the perceived aggression
  • Listen: When somebody offers up an idea of their own, don’t cut them off mid-sentence and explain why their idea won’t work or what happened the last time something like that was tried. Unleash the hidden potential of silence! Let somebody else be the first to publicize a reaction

As we are all well aware, in one context or another, change is a difficult thing. Yet, so many of us escalate the degree of that difficulty because we have somehow become far more enamored with the notion of “transformation” than we are with the power of an intentional — and doable — course correction.



  1. Read “What Got You Here … Won’t Get You There …”
    We have yet to find anyone that didn’t find doing so a worthwhile experience:

  1. Reflect on your personal goals for the upcoming year in the context of “shifting into neutral” :
    • Would any of your goals benefit from a thoughtful redraft with more of an emphasis on “course correction” as opposed to “transformation?”