7 Toxic Words to Avoid As a Leader

November 18, 2019

These are toxic words a leader or manager should never say.

Words exchanged between colleagues can land very differently than a conversation between a manager and a direct report. 

The words a manager uses really, really matter. Even something said in jest or in the moment can stick with an employee for a long time.

In Todd Dewett's course Management Tips Weekly, he pinpoints the seven toxic words leaders should avoid when giving feedback to their team. 

LinkedIn Learning Instructor Todd Dewett lists the seven words a manager should never say at work.

7 Toxic Words a Leaders Should Avoid

They are:

    1. Can’t

Never say something can’t be done – it’s harsh and often untrue.

Instead, explain why something can be difficult to execute. So, rather than, “we can’t sort sales calls by that way,” say “to get that data, we’d need to educate the entire sales team on a new field in SalesForce.” That’ll provide more context and ultimately led to better relationships with your employees.

    2. No

Big clarification here – saying no is a big part of being a manager. Prioritization is essential. But, how you say no matters, and that’s by avoiding the actual word no.

“It's clear and to the point, but it's very often seen as too heavy, negative or even disrespectful,” Dewett said. “Instead, strive to offer a more informative comment about the decision that was made.”

    3. Wrong

“If you want to make someone get angry or question their intelligence, tell them they're wrong,” Dewett said. “If an issue truly is black or white, okay, but most are not, and a more nuanced statement is beneficial.”

Also, saying “wrong” is a sign of closed-minded thinking. Rarely is someone completely wrong or completely right, there’s degrees of truth to each point.

    4. Fault

This one is okay if you are talking earthquakes. But, telling someone something is “their fault” is a recipe for disengagement.

“Assigning fault might be necessary, but know that it's dangerous,” Dewett said. “The key is to be succinct, focused more on the team more than any one individual when possible, and framed positively.”

    5. Never

A rule PR folks teach politicians – never say never. Well, same goes for managers.

“When talking about the future, this word almost always feels like a door slammed in someone's face,” Dewett said. “It can reduce hope and thus motivation. You can't see the future, so let's resist saying never.”

    6. Stupid

This is one of those words we use in jest. And maybe it gets a laugh at the time – but with a cost.

“Even though you might be talking about an idea or work product, not a person, people very often take it personally,” Dewett said. “Instead, try to choose non-inflammatory language.”

    7. Impossible

This is similar to never. And it’s rarely true – two hundred years ago, the idea of someone flying across the country at 40,000 feet at speeds of 550 mph seemed impossible. Now, it happens all the time.

“I'll admit that all of these words in small doses, framed constructively, are just fine,” Dewett said. “But remember, don't overindulge in their use and don't use them with a heavy, negative tone. Your words matter, so try to err on positive word choices if you really want people to listen.”

Well said.

Want to learn more? Watch Dewett’s full LinkedIn Learning course, Management Tips Weekly.

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