Business Conversations: Three Things a Leader Should Never Say

There are times in business when we find ourselves carefully crafting every single word we string together, whether it is in a company-wide email about possible layoffs, a sales proposal/contract, or a press release. When we’re more relaxed, we speak effortlessly and forget most of what we say within minutes. But we often underestimate the impact casual, common phrases have in the workplace.

Words matter. The way they’re said matters. But the way they’re interpreted matters the most.

Here are three common phrases that every leader should avoid:

  • “It’s not personal.” No matter what is being criticized, saying the phrase “it’s not personal” immediately signals to the other person that it is, in fact, personal. The phrase can either come across insensitive or as a passive-aggressive insult tactic. When we tell someone “it’s not personal” what we’re really saying is “it’s not personal to me.” In business, everything is half-personal, half-professional, or as my friend Jason Seiden says “Life is Profersonal.” The line between professional and personal life is inherently blurred. We spend 1/3 of our lives at work, and for most people, it’s not by choice. We work to pay our bills, put food on the table, and a roof over our heads. We work so we’re able to afford a comfortable life and have money to go do things as a family. So anything that threatens the security of that job or the value of that time, is absolutely personal. If you get the urge to utter the phrase “it’s not personal” that should be a cue that the other individual is likely experiencing some emotions as a result of your conversation. Take time to ask them how they’re feeling, listen to their perspective, acknowledge it, and express empathy.
  • “I don’t like surprises.” No one likes negative surprises, so the saying is frivolous at best. But the hidden meaning behind the phrase will create two possible dangerous results. Some individuals on your team will interpret that phrase to mean “don’t bring me bad news.” But that doesn’t mean the bad news is avoidable. It just means the employee will work to hide the bad news, which will likely snowball into a bigger problem or create a domino effect multiplying the new problems. Other individuals on the team will interpret the phrase “I don’t like surprises” as a directive to bring every possible risk factor to the table. Team members may spend too much time and effort disaster planning because they want to avoid unexpected outcomes. While no leader likes to be surprised, they also don’t enjoy managing a team of Chicken Littles.
  • “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” While the leader may believe they’re empowering the individual to think creatively and solve problems, what they’ve really said is “I am tired of hearing your frustrations, and I believe you complain too much.” In most cases, this phrase causes the employee to shut down. They may continue to identify real problems (and solutions) but they will choose not to share them for fear that they will be judged as negative or whiny. But even if the employee interprets the phrase less personally, the end result is still harmful. If employees only bring solutions to the leader’s attention, then leaders are less likely to engage in critical thinking about the problem itself. They will bypass a root cause analysis, recognizing assumptions, evaluating evidence and creative thinking, and jump straight into solution implementation. The result will be poorly designed solutions and an inability to recognize the patterns of interconnected issues that cause problems throughout the organization.

The spoken word is a powerful tool! It can inspire, engage, and energize your workforce. Articulate leaders know how to harness this power and use it carefully, yet strategically. But we must be equally as careful with our casual comments. If what you say is not what they hear, then it’s time to reevaluate the expression.