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9 Things a Boss Shouldn’t Say

Yes, gruntled is a word. Does that make sense? No, boss, it doesn’t make sense. We can’t understand such high-level thinking. Can you break it down for us rubes so we can follow? “Does that make sense?” isn’t that bad of a thing to say, but it can be a little cringe-worthy depending on how you say it. Some people hear “I’ve tried to dumb this down enough for you — have I done so?” You probably didn’t mean it like that but a better thing to say would simply be “does anyone have any questions?” A boss shouldn’t need to be overly sensitive or walking on eggshells around their people of course. And we know some people need thicker skin. But some things bosses say could simply be said in a better way. As someone who has been in military, corporate, and volunteer leadership positions for 25 years, I have seen how saying certain things in certain ways can help or harm your efforts. Here are a few of them. As well as ways to say them better.

1. “Sure, take the day off, but keep your phone close.” If an employee has paid vacation, don’t try to keep them plugged in. Saying this shows you’re ready to contact them at the drop of a hat. This feels disrespectful in a way. Respectful in that you need them, but disrespectful in that you don’t care about their personal time. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but you should try your best to leave your team alone when they are off work, especially when they’re spending time with their family. What you could say instead: “Enjoy your time off.” “We’ve got it handled here.” “Don’t worry about work.” “Talk to you tomorrow.” Or “I hate to bother you but just need one thing” if you must contact them.

2. “You don’t need to know why, just do it.” This is never a good thing to say even when it’s true. A good boss will keep their employees informed as much as possible. Keeping employees informed lets them know they’re part of the big picture. It shows you respect them. Of course, rumor and speculation are unhelpful and damaging, but there is a lot you can let your people know. You should always be able to explain to employees why they do what they do. What you could say instead: “Here’s why we need to do this.” Then fill in the blank with a reasoned answer. Or “I need you to just do it now, but I’ll explain how this falls into the big picture later when the dust settles.”

3. “Some of you are doing (something negative).” Shotgun feedback to correct one or two employees is a bad way to correct someone. If someone is messing up, sit down with them. Don’t say “some of you have been arriving late” or “some of you are slacking” to the whole team. This is damaging, lazy leadership. It shows the people on your team who are performing well that you don’t recognize that. What you could say instead: Say nothing to everyone — address the specific person who has the issue. If you use shotgun feedback genuinely for positives, that is fine. But don’t shotgun your whole team about negatives when just one or two people need to hear it.

4. “You’re lucky to have this job.” No boss, you’re lucky to have people follow you. And you’ll be lucky if people still do after you say that. Saying someone is lucky or should be thankful for the job isn’t something a boss should say. Other people can say it, but not a boss. It’s condescending and does nothing good for anyone. What you could say instead: “We’re lucky to have someone like you on the team.” Or just say nothing at all about it if that statement isn’t true.

5. “We failed” or “my team and I succeeded.” Never say either. In public always say you failed if there was a failure. You take full responsibility for failure. Never blame your team. And if you’re in a meeting in front of the entire company don’t say “my team and I did (something successful).” Say they did this as you speak about them. What you could say instead: “I failed.” “They succeeded.”

6. “The customer is always right.” Not if they’re wrong. Customers are wrong sometimes. Don’t throw your people under the bus for the sake of the almighty customer. Of course, there are proper ways to address customer complaints and perhaps someone on your team could have handled things better. But right is right and wrong is wrong no matter who does it. What you could say instead: “The customer isn’t right, but this is how we need to handle this from a business perspective.” Or, say “goodbye customer!” Sometimes people are so toxic you shouldn’t keep them as customers.

7. “This is how we’ve always done it.” That’s not a good reason for doing anything. If there’s a good reason to continue doing it how you’ve always done it then great, but you need to be able to explain that good reason. A good boss understands the why behind procedure. What you could say instead: “We have always done it this way and here is why we’ll continue to do it.” Then be able to explain it coherently. Or say “I don’t know why we do it like this, let’s re-think this.”

8. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” Usually, employees hear this as “there’s nothing I’m willing to do about it” or “I’m not sticking my neck out on this one.” Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and if there’s “nothing you can do about it” it usually means there’s no will. Often there is something you can do about an employee’s concern. If you truly can’t do anything about something, then state why when the time is right. What you could say instead: “I’ve tried to address this but can’t seem to move the needle — I’ll keep trying though.” Sometimes employees don’t always have concerns worth running up the flagpole. Saying there is nothing you will do is better than saying there’s nothing you can do. But most of the time you can do something to address an employee’s concern.

9. “I don’t care.” If you don’t care about ‘x’ then why should anyone? I don’t care isn’t something you should keep in your verbal toolbox. As a leader, setting the example of caring about your mission will be the only way you can expect your team to do the same. What you could say instead: “Let me think about this.” “We need to keep focused on the bigger picture.” “This isn’t critical to making that decision so let’s focus elsewhere.” Being able to state why it’s not a priority is better than saying you don’t care.

Final Thoughts None of these words will lead to a mutiny among your team but they could damage morale and make your team less effective. Choose wisely the words you use and statements you make to maximize your team’s effectiveness and morale. If you’re ever in doubt about what to say, say whatever is more likely to make other people better versions of themselves. The mark of a good leader is selflessly lifting up those they lead. Putting them first. Speak in a spirit that lifts the people on your team higher and you simply can’t go wrong.


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