Bosses get a hard rap from their subordinates—and often for good reason. As organizations flatten, there still are bosses who have a “top down” attitude that undermines employee self-worth. In fact, research shows that it’s the high-achieving employees who are most likely to be offended by a controlling boss with poor leadership skills. This behavior hurts an organization, and it hurts its best people.
There is a simple way to keep any of these tendencies in check: Reframe your language to reflect a less authoritarian tone. If you’re a boss, make a New Year’s resolution to avoid these six expressions:
1. “I NEED YOU TO . . .”
This is common parlance in boss land, and it has an edge to it. Using this expression, the manager offers no reason why meeting a certain deadline or turning up in the office on a particular day is important. Rather, the boss is simply asserting, “You have to serve my needs.”
Enlightened bosses don’t ask their staff to do things for them. They explain their requests and motivate their employees with shared concerns about the success of a project or the achievement of a goal. No employee should follow a directive simply to satisfy your need.
If someone is working on a hybrid schedule, avoid saying, “I need you to be here on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Say, instead, “If you can be here Tuesdays and Thursdays, that would be great because we can get the whole team together on those days.”
2. “I ASKED YOU TO . . .”
This is another grating expression. The language is punitive: It implies that the employee has failed, as in “I asked you to get the quarterly numbers for me, but here we are in the middle of the week and you haven’t supplied them.”
Instead, it’s better to say to your employee, “We need to provide our shareholders with the quarterly numbers, as I believe we discussed at our last meeting. Can you get those to me this week?” The tone of this is more collaborative and will end up getting better results.
3. “GET IT TO ME BY . . . “
This is not a request, it is an order, and suggests an abrupt, top-down attitude.
Sometimes you may be in a rush, but that’s never an excuse for being curt. Get in the habit of explaining any request you have, including the most urgent ones. If the spreadsheet must be finished by 5 p.m., make clear why that’s so important. Discuss who’ll be waiting for it, and what decisions rest on those data. If you order someone around, you’ll lose their loyalty, and the work will be done grudgingly.
A better approach for dealing with a specific deadline would be to say, “Senior management would like to see this report by Friday. How can we complete it by then?” Asking, rather than telling, and using collaborative language makes all the difference.
4. “THAT MAY BE SO, BUT . . . “
Here’s another unintentional put-down that bosses sometimes use. “That may be so” is a cursory acknowledgment that the subordinate may have said something true or valid. The but takes it all away from them and tells the employee that the boss’s opinion is the only important one.
A better approach would be to say, “I see what you mean,” or “that’s true.” Then follow with “and” rather than “but.” The word “and” is collaborative; the word “but” is divisive. The revised wording might sound like this: “I see what you mean, and I would further suggest that . . .” With this language, the boss speaks as a colleague, not an adversary.
5. “I DON’T CARE . . . “
This expression shows no empathy or understanding. It’s simply the boss pulling rank. This harsh turn of phrase is sometimes used when a subordinate has had trouble completing an assignment or winning over a client—and she’s explaining what went wrong. She’s already feeling vulnerable; don’t put her down.
A better way of handling that situation is to listen and offer guidance about how the challenge might be handled. Advice, rather than a reprimand, makes it likely that the employee will do better next time. A good boss is constructive, not punitive. Show that you do care.
6. “NO . . .”
This seemingly innocuous two-letter word is a go-to expression for many people in authority. Who hasn’t heard this from their boss? But in whatever context you give this word, it carries a lot of baggage—including a sense of disappointment and dismissiveness. For instance, “No, that won’t work,” or “No, I don’t have time,” or “No, I didn’t agree to that.” It’s an unproductive word that only lowers the spirits of the person hearing it.
So, avoid this word. Never say “no.” Even “maybe” is better, as in “maybe it will work,” or “maybe we can give it a try.” Even better: “Let’s give it a try.”
Words matter. And being conscious of the phrases you use will make you a better, more enlightened and supportive boss in 2022 and beyond.