5 Phrases You Should Absolutely Never Say at Work

August 5, 2019

phrases not to say at work

The world of work is about relationships. In most organizations, saying the right thing goes a long way in helping you gain support for a project or upward mobility. 

On the flip side, saying the wrong thing, or what might cause harm to a relationship, can limit your career growth and hinder the team's ability to work together and reach optimal outcomes. 

While there are a handlful of 'dos and don'ts' in the office, leadership coach Todd Dewett highlights five of the most common phrases that do more harm than good in the office in his course on Management Tips. They are:

1. “That’s not my job.”

When it’s often used: Someone asks for help on a task or project outside of your core job scope. You may have a lot on your plate at the moment and can't prioritize the effort right now. 

What people hear when you say it: “I’m out for myself only.”

A great alternative: “Unfortunately, I can't prioritize this right now.” 

It’s important to set boundaries to ensure you deliver your best work on key priorities. In fact, it’s essential. But 'it's not my job' is a phrase that may hinder the progress you and the organization is looking for. 

2. “We’ve tried that before.”

When it’s used: You or a colleague had an idea that didn’t achieve optimal results. Someone suggests a similar idea. When you use the phrase "we've tried that before" in lieu of historical context, this colleague will likely feel shut down and dismissed.

What people hear when you say it: Either “I don’t want to put the effort in” or “I know everything and you know nothing." 

A great alternative: “I hear you. We came to a similar conclusion and unfortunately did not get the results we hoped for.” 

Its possible that what’s being proposed has been tried, but this is a slightly different approach. Help your colleague understand the historical context and why you think this suggestion is likely to demonstrate similar results. Enable them to have an informed approach on the situation and be open to discussion about next steps. 

3. “There’s no budget for that.”

When it’s used: A person has an idea they're passionate about, but you don't have budget scoped for the project they suggest. This phrase can make this person, or your team, feel that you’re discouraging new ideas and minimizing creativity.

What people hear when you say it: “Keep your head down and do what’s expected.”

A great alternative: “Fun idea. Let’s talk about ways we can make this work on a smaller scale or at a later date.”

Great ideas should be funded, but its important to make the case for big budget ideas. A great way to encourage a colleague or direct report to explore a great idea that may not have the budget to back it, is to propose a test on a smaller scale or find a time in the year where you can make the case to fund the project. 

4. “I told you so.”

When it’s used: A colleague has an idea, you say disagree with the approach, yet the colleague proceeds anyway. It doesn't work out as planned.

What people hear when you say it: “I was actively rooting against you.”

A great alternative: Quiet support. Move on to the next project as a united team.

Once the colleague recognizes the effort didn't meet expectations, it's time for everyone to move forward as one team. By quietly supporting a colleague through an uncomfortable time, you can build the relationship to work more collaboratively in the future. 

5. “That doesn’t follow procedure.”

When it’s used: Someone has an idea that may rock the boat on typical processes within the organization. 

What people hear when you say it: “There’s only one way to do things here.”

A great alternative: “We’re encouraged to take this approach, let me tell you why.”

Many rules are not absolute and, if a procedure is blocking progress, it may be worth re-examining how it helps the organization. Adhering to the way things have always been done can hinder innovation. Help this colleague understand why the procedure is in place. If you both agree there should be a change, explore how to do that together. 

Final thought

So much of success in the world of work today depends on how you interact with your colleagues.  Doing your specific job well is important, but how you show up at work to support your colleagues and the culture is also essential to most organizations. 

Avoid these five phrases to foster more positive interactions with your colleagues. 

Want to learn more? Watch Dewett’s full course, Management Tips

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