5 Innocent but Damaging Things Bosses Say
“I’d rather be castrated with a plastic spork than come into work tomorrow!” my coworker said after hearing the boss was coming back into town after two weeks of traveling for business. “We get so much good work done when he’s not here.”
This was a common sentiment among this boss’s subordinates. He wasn’t a bad guy but he just did and said things without thinking that eventually just obliterated morale.
Most of the time, if you know someone’s heart is in the right place, you can forgive some dumb things they say, but when dumb words combine with micromanagement morale takes a nosedive.
I’ve studied and practiced leadership for two decades in military and corporate settings and I’ve found that a leader’s words do matter greatly to morale.
Even if a boss doesn’t mean harm, some things they say can harm.
Here are some common unintentional verbal blunders to avoid.
#1. “Trust Me” (Said in the “Don’t Question Me” Way)
There is certainly a time for just following orders. Especially during a crisis or mission. As a Marine, we learned there is a time and a place to give your input but when a decision has been made and a mission has been set, your role is to know and play your role.
On the other hand, you want employees who can think for themselves and have creative ideas. A good boss wants people to let them know when they disagree. A good boss is confident and humble enough to accept input from people who aren’t “yes men.” This kind of boss is highly effective because they are always working with the best ideas and most accurate information. They have all brains at work, not just their own.
So unless you are ordering people in battle or need them to just play their role at the time, keep the “don’t question my wisdom” vibes to yourself.
A good boss says “yes, please let me know if you disagree. I may not change my decision but I’ll listen. But once a decision is made, please help the mission be a success.”
“A leader that won’t listen to others will eventually be surrounded by people that have nothing to say.”-Andy Stanley
#2. “I’ll Just Do It Myself”
Nooooooo! Pleeease don’t say this! This conveys many damaging things. First, it implies you are impatient. Second, that the person you are doing it for isn’t competent or smart enough to pick up on your superb instructional skills. Third, it means you are doing their job now. Fourth, it shows you have no confidence in that person’s ability to function effectively.
If you assign someone a task, let them do it. Expect success. Trust them. Once it’s assigned to them, it’s theirs. Help only if they absolutely need it. Even if they say they need it but it would help them more for you not to help, then don’t help. But never take back assigned tasks.
Never dismiss them back to their desk with an “I’ll just do it myself.”
You may think it’s just more efficient or saving you time if you do it, but when you do that, you’ve stabbed a verbal knife into their enthusiasm and sent them back to slowly bleed morale.
“You can do it. I know it.” is what you can say instead.
“Trust each other again and again. When the trust level gets high enough, people transcend apparent limits, discovering new and awesome abilities of which they were previously unaware.” -David Armistead, business consultant
#3. “Failure is Not an Option”
Failure is an option when people are being creative, thinking outside the box, or using initiative. Failure isn’t preferred, but it can often be the prerequisite to success.
Allowing failure as long as it is followed by better is often a key strategy for success.
When you state that failure isn’t an option you’ve instructed people to play it safe, keep their heads down, just do their job, and don’t think too hard.
What you really probably meant was “we really need to succeed here as they’re counting on us.”
Just say instead “I’m asking you to give your very best and if we all do that, I know we can succeed.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill
#4. “I’m Giving it to You Because I Know You Can Handle It”
If you have an excellent employee, you do want to give them more responsibility. That’s probably what they want also.
But just giving them more work to the point of burnout because they’re good at it without more money, status, or perks is counterproductive. It also damages life with their family and health and other things more important than work.
I’ve seen this happen so many times. A good project manager is loaded up with all the work because they can get it done.
But three months later they burn out and quit and the boss is left with the mediocre project manager they didn’t load with work.
There’s a work-life balance here that a good boss respects. If someone is that good that you ask more of them, then give more reward to them and always honor their life outside of work.
“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls — family, health, friends, and integrity — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.” — Gary Keller, real estate entrepreneur
#5. “We Remember What Happened When He Did ‘X’”
Even if it’s a minor issue, don’t call employees out in public, ever. Even if you think it’s making a point or teaching a lesson. Criticism is for private, praise is for public.
Some of the best marriage advice I’ve ever heard was “keep a short memory.” Meaning don’t dwell on past wrongs. Forgive. Forget. Move on. Your relationship will be better if that spouse, or employee, knows you aren’t carrying all of their mistakes around in your back pocket forever.
Public criticism is embarrassing, demoralizing, and disrespectful to what someone has done well. Plus they then feel they have to “save face” or prove themselves over and over again.
If you want a stressed-out demoralized employee then remember their mistakes.
“Praise in public; criticize in private.” — Vince Lombardi
A lot of these things on the surface don’t seem that harmful. But I’ve seen each of them cut large swaths of morale out of people.
To recap what you should say instead:
#1. “Please tell me what you really think even if we disagree.” (Assuming it’s before the time people should just follow orders.)
#2. “I know you can do it. I trust you. I’ll help if you really need it but I think you’ve got it.”
#3. “Failure is OK if we learn from it, improve from it, and don’t let it destroy us.”
#4. “Here’s more responsibility…and also more perks…and family time.”
#5. “She did great everyone!” Or, “Please close the door, I want to talk to you about something.”
It boils down to self and social awareness. Empathy. The Golden Rule. Respect. When in doubt, think about what you’d want your boss to say.
Then say it!