The Most Common Phrases That Are Red Flags At Work

Listen for these phrases from others and yourself. Now you’ll know how to read between the lines of what’s really being expressed at work.

The Most Common Phrases That Are Red Flags At Work
[Image: Flickr user Montecruz Foto]

There’s a lot of talk when teams collaborate to deliver their next big idea.


While language is not the only way we communicate, it’s a major part of the picture. So paying attention to the language around you is a good way to get a closer look inside the thinking of the people whose performance may be critical to your own success.

In three decades of partnering with Fortune 1000 enterprises, we’ve been led by the principle that you can achieve extraordinary results by changing mindsets. Now, you can’t really “see” someone’s mindset. But you can understand it by paying attention to how people speak and phrase their thoughts. There’s what they actually say, and there’s what comes through, what’s just behind their words.

When it comes to producing results, some language can be a red flag, even when it sounds good and people say the right things. Paying attention to the language around you can help identify dangers to performance and address them before promising work crashes to a halt.

Overt statements are easy to catch and understand, like “We’ve never done it that way.” But there are many subtleties to the way people express inner roadblocks, and the nuance is important. Here are five examples from our practice over the years of language that indicates roadblocks ahead:

1. “I’m working every pathway”

This is a good one, because it sounds like people are working really hard, and they typically instill confidence in others when they say this. But what if every pathway they’re currently working doesn’t end up producing the result? Just beneath is a hint that if these pathways don’t produce the result, we are well justified for why. After all, didn’t we give everything?

2. “Let me tell you what we have been doing”

Why do people volunteer this information when no one asked for it? Are they trying to guess what others want to hear? The big question: Is what they are doing in line with producing the outcome? Maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t. When people get mesmerized by what they’re doing, it’s easy to lose sight of the outcome. Make sure you care more about the outcome than the activity and steer people in the right direction.


3. “Here’s what I need”

This one could be okay. When someone is being resourceful, they express their needs as requests and keep going until the job is done.

But, “Here’s what I need” could be an indicator that this person will produce the result only under the conditions that the people, the time, and the resources are fulfilled.

A person can be conditional about one thing, and incredibly resourceful about another. As the conversation continues, work to invoke people’s natural ability to be resourceful and work through any conditions they have. They will come through.

4. “It seems like my time would be best spent …”

This can be a tricky one, because off-the-hook language sounds like on-the-hook language. This person sounds responsible but they’ve potentially ditched the team’s goals and priorities for their own preferences. They want to do what they want to do–but what if they are missing the whole point of owning the big picture and what’s needed? It indicates misalignment on a team when people find fancy ways of saying that the work that’s required and how they use their time has no value. Keep talking to uncover what’s really happening–maybe, truthfully, they think they just can’t do it.

5. “What do you want me to do about . . .?”

This person is not leading, and it sounds like they are really trying to be of service and do whatever is needed to get the job done. But mostly they are asking questions with easy answers and not doing much thinking. Close cousins include, “Do you want me to…?” and “Should I go and…?” The fact that they are asking these questions probably means they are hesitant to take a risk and lead the conversation. Underneath their question, they’re asking permission to lead. Give it to them.

So what do you do when you hear this kind of language?


First of all, we all say these things in the pursuit of results. It’s normal. Looking out for and listening to each other may be the key to delivering something extraordinary. And by all means keep that keen ear tuned on your own language. If you hear yourself saying phrases like these, you can catch yourself and redirect.

In our experience, enterprises achieve extraordinary results when people challenge one another to reach a shared destination that would be inconceivable for any single individual. Being attuned to the way we speak to each other is an important way to understand how the team is thinking when it comes to achieving great things.

Just remember, people’s words are always giving clues into whether or not the result will be produced. Make sure you’re listening for them.

Andy Hooper is vice president and Lara Ratkovic is consultant of Gap International, a global executive consultancy that partners with leaders in producing exceptional growth.