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March 28, 2023

10 things managers should never say - and what to say instead

Mind Tools for Business

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We all make mistakes. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment that we immediately regret. But for managers, off-the-cuff comments to an employee can cause irreparable damage. From demotivation to resentment, guilt to open conflict; one ill-thought remark could go so far as to damage your entire organization.

Some things are non-negotiable: managers shouldn't engage in gossip, make threats, hurl insults, or banter inappropriately with employees. And seemingly innocuous remarks can cause more harm than we realize.

A recent poll of over 2,000 U.K. employees found that more than two in five had left a job because of a manager, and over half claimed they were considering leaving because of their manager.

What Is A Manager For?

Unfortunately, everyone has bad days, and it can be easy to lash out when work is getting on top of you. That's why the best leaders always think before they speak. After all, as American author and businessman, Stephen Covey, said, "Leadership is a choice, not a position."

Managers are there to be supportive and encourage growth in their employees, through nurturing talent and building strengths, to everyone's advantage. But in recent years, employee engagement has been at an all-time low. What can managers do to improve the situation?

The following statistics show the problem with employee engagement and how good management has a part to play in fixing it:

  • According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report, a mere 21 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work.
  • The report also estimates that low engagement costs the world economy a staggering $7.8 trillion a year.
  • Another report from Gallup shows that employees who receive daily feedback from their manager are three times more likely to be engaged than those who receive it once a year or less.
  • A recent paper in the Human Resource Management Journal showed that skillful management coaching has a direct impact on team performance.

What Should A Manager Not Say (And What Should They Say)?

You need employees to feel appreciated and valuable. So managers should demonstrate the key attributes of patience, understanding and focus. As an organization, encourage managers to abandon their verbal "auto-replies." Instead, teach them to use their words wisely by following these 10 tips for what managers should and shouldn’t say.

1. Don't say, "I don't have the time." Say, "Can we book some time to discuss this later?"

Saying that you don't have time for your employees suggests that they aren't important enough. This could foster their insecurities and drag down their motivation and performance. If an employee has an issue then you do, too. As a manager, there's nothing more important than the well-being of your team.

Plus, it might have taken a lot of effort for your team member to come to you in the first place. I once spent a morning rehearsing a difficult conversation in the bathroom mirror and in my car en route to the office, only to be shot down painfully with, "Send me an email."

It's in everyone's best interest to try to resolve problems swiftly and compassionately. As mentioned in the bullet list above, research shows that employees who have some form of daily communication with their managers exhibit higher engagement levels.

2. Don't say, "Leave it at the door." Say, "Would you like to talk about what's on your mind?" 

Personal problems, and mental health, have a huge impact on employees at work. It's much healthier to work through these issues than to shut them away in a box and pretend that they're not happening.

Everyone needs support sometimes. A 2018 State of the Workplace study by Businessolver found that 96 percent of employees believe that showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention. Their following 2019 study also revealed a startling disconnect – while 92 percent of CEOs feel their organization is empathic, only 72 percent of their employees agree.

Be the sort of boss you would want to have. You may end up helping someone through a bad situation – like my friend, Joe. A young woman in his team was becoming easily upset and frustrated at work. Inviting her to talk in the coffee room led her to open up about depression, and eventually seek counselling.

A word of warning, however – be cautious of oversharing. As a manager, you must still maintain boundaries.

3. Don't say, "You have big shoes to fill!" Say, "We're excited to see what you bring to the role.

I've heard this at the start of nearly every new role and seen its effect on others. It's always said in jest, but it's more demoralizing and intimidating than it is motivating. It can instil a sense of pressure and self-doubt. Not a nice feeling on day one of a new job!

Each new employee is hired based on their own potential; no one wants to be considered as a replica of their predecessor.

4. Don't say, "Good job today." Say, "How did you get on"

All praise is positive, right? Well, not if it sounds generic and insincere - it can actually have the opposite effect on an employee. Praise is only effective if it aids a person's growth.  

So, be specific and constructive with feedback. Tailor it to individuals and their achievements so that they'll apply the same efforts elsewhere in their work.

A few thoughtful words can make someone feel like they're walking on a cloud and provide a new-found burst of pride and energy.

It's always best to check in with team members to gauge how they feel about their accomplishments. They may have done a great job at holding a campaign together, but they could now be suffering from burnout as a result. Never assume that you know how an employee is feeling.

5. Don't say, "I'm not paying you so that I can do your job for you." Say, "How can I support you?

We can all feel overwhelmed and out of our comfort zone at times. Perhaps a task has revealed a need for some additional training? Managers should deal with this in a supportive and constructive way. Putting in additional effort now will enable you to build a more confident, proficient and skilled team.  

Gallup found that 67 percent of employees felt more engaged when their managers focused on their strengths, compared with only 31 percent whose managers focused on their weaknesses. What's more, a Zenger Folkman study of 35,279 leaders found that better coaches saw over three times as many employees willing to go the extra mile.

6. Don't say, "Why did/didn't you do it like this?" Say, "How can we do this differently next time?

I once witnessed my colleague Steph be brought to tears as her manager berated her loudly in an open plan office.

Steph was inexperienced, had asked for support that she never received, and consequently messed up badly on a huge email blast. She was still learning, but her manager's reaction made Steph doubt her potential to the point that she quit the company and changed career paths.

Even if someone is to blame, anger and finger-pointing are not the answer. Playing the blame game makes people feel beaten-down, and demoralized. Focus on facts, not feelings, and approach difficult feedback from a constructive standpoint.   

7. Don't say, "No one else has a problem with it." Say, "Shall we discuss what's not working for you?

Good managers don't tell their employees how they should and shouldn't feel. Instead of acting defensively to complaints or concerns, view them as a clear warning sign that someone needs your help. If performance is an issue, then it's yours to help resolve. 

Or maybe it's a case of training and providing support for an employee who isn’t up to speed. Or perhaps it’s something else, and the employee just needs to have a conversation and work it out for themselves. That’s where good coaching comes in.

The best managers seek feedback and input from their teams. Responding compassionately builds trust and means employees will feel more confident about opening up to you.

8. Don't say, "Failure is not an option." Say, "What's our Plan B?

"Management is nothing more than motivating other people," says American Executive, Lee Iacocca. So, make your team members feel valued by inviting them to discuss creative, alternative solutions that can act as a safety net. And you never know, you might just strike gold “great ideas don't only come from the boardroom, after all.

Abandon any aggressive sports metaphors when communicating expectations or delivering bad news. Often, they are less motivational and helpful than you might think, and can stir insecurity or resentment in your team.

9. Don't say, "I hate this job/client/co-worker." Say, "What do we think makes [X] so challenging?"

A throwaway comment may seem harmless, but it could come back to haunt you later.

During a particularly stressful week, my friend, Marissa, was going above and beyond the call of duty because she loved the company and challenging herself. But when her boss, Graham, breezed past her desk and said, "I wish I had your job instead; it'd be so much easier", it crushed her spirit.  

And whatever you do, don't be like my old manager. He used to say how much he hated his job as a way to bond with employees. But this attitude didn't inspire any confidence or respect. Instead, it "poisoned the well" for everyone. It also backfired on him, when he was quoted by an employee to the very boss he'd moaned about.

10. Don't say, "It's always been this way. I don't want questions; I just want it done." Say, "How else could we approach this?

Don't be a "my way or the highway" sort of manager. Change is not something to resist or be frightened of. We should always be striving for continuous improvement. A truly great organization and its managers seek input from people at all levels. Asking questions clarifies understanding – and proposing new ideas shows that employees are engaged and want to feel involved.

By keeping focus on maintaining and growing relationships with your employees, everyone benefits – and so does your bottom line. You'll increase people's confidence, satisfaction and performance, and in return, you and your business can identify, retain and benefit from the best talent.

If ever you think you've said something you shouldn't have, don't just push it out of your mind: assess whether you need to address it, apologize for your mistake, and explain what you should have said instead. It will calm emotions and show your growth and caring nature as a manager.

Have you ever said anything to an employee that you regretted? How was it taken? Has a manager ever said anything that upset you at work? How did you handle it? Would you do anything differently?

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