12 Things You Should Never Say at Work

by Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Magazine, 2/15/13

According to Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, “In speaking with hundreds of executives and senior leaders over the past 20 years, certain phrases consistently come up as career-limiting. They jeopardize one’s professionalism and potential for promotion. They may seem harmless. But employees who use these phrases will likely be replaced with those who convey a more positive, collaborative, proactive, and professional demeanor.”

1. “It’s not fair.”

She got a raise, you didn’t. He was recognized, you weren’t. “Injustices happen on the job every day,” Price says. “The point in avoiding this phrase is to be proactive about the issues versus complaining, or worse, passively whining.” Instead, document the facts, build a case, and present an intelligent argument to the person or group who can help you.

2. “That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “I don’t get paid enough for this.”

If you asked someone for help, and the person replied with one of the above phrases, how would you feel? “Regardless of how inconvenient or inappropriate a request may be, it’s important to the other person or they wouldn’t have asked,” Price says. “Therefore, as a contributing member of the team, a top priority is to care about the success of others (or at least act as though you do).”  An unconcerned, detached, self-serving attitude quickly limits career advancement.

“This doesn’t mean you have to say yes; it does mean you need to be articulate and thoughtful when saying no,” she adds. “For example, if your boss issues an unreasonable request, say, ‘I’ll be glad to help. Given my current tasks of A, B, and C, which one of these shall I place on hold while I work on this new assignment?’ This communicates teamwork and helpfulness, while reminding your boss of your current work load and the need to set realistic expectations.”

3.“No problem.”

When someone thanks you, the polite reply is, “You’re welcome.” This implies that it was a pleasure for you to help the person, and that you receive their appreciation. “Though the casual laid-back phrase, ‘no problem’ may intend to communicate this, it actually negates the person’s appreciation and implies the situation could have been a problem under other circumstances,” Price says.

4. “I’ll try.”

“Imagine it’s April 15th and you ask a friend to mail your tax returns before 5pm on his way to the post office,” Price says. “If he replies, ‘Okay, I’ll try,’ you’ll mail them yourself.” Why? Because that phrase implies the possibility of failure. “In your speech, especially with senior leaders, replace the word ‘try’ with the word and intention of ‘will.’ This seemingly small change speaks volumes.”

5. “He’s a jerk,” or “She’s lazy,” or “My job stinks,” or “I hate this company.”

Nothing tanks a career faster than name-calling, Price says. “Not only does it reveal juvenile school-yard immaturity, it’s language that is liable and fire-able.” Avoid making unkind, judgmental statements that will reflect poorly on you. If you have a genuine complaint about someone or something, communicate the issue with tact, consideration, and neutrality.

6. “But we’ve always done it that way.”

“The most effective leaders value innovation, creative thinking and problem solving skills,” Price says. This phrase reveals you’re stuck in the past, inflexible, and closed-minded. “Instead say, ‘That’s an interesting idea. How would that work?’ Or, ‘That’s a different approach. Let’s discuss the pros and cons.’”

7. “That’s impossible” or “There’s nothing I can do.”

Really? Are you sure you’ve considered every solution and the list is now exhausted? “These negative phrases convey a pessimistic, passive, even hopeless outlook,” Price says. “Employers notice a can-do attitude. Despite the glum circumstances, communicate through your words what you can contribute to the situation.” Instead, try something like, “I’ll be glad to check on it again,” “Let’s discuss what’s possible under these circumstances,” or, “What I can do is this.”

8. “You should have…” or “You could have…”

You wouldn’t be thrilled if someone said: “You should have told me about this sooner!” Or, “You could have tried a little harder.” “These fault-finding words inflict feelings of blame,” Price says. “Ideally, the workplace fosters equality, collaboration, and teamwork. Instead of making someone feel guilty (even if they are), take a more productive non-judgmental approach.” Say, “Next time, to ensure proper planning, please bring this to my attention immediately.” Or, “In the future, I recommend…”

9. “You guys.”

Reserve the phrase “you guys” for casual conversations. Avoid using it in business. “Referring to a group of people as ‘you guys’ is not only inaccurate if women are present, it’s slang and lowers your level of professionalism,” Price explains. With fellow professionals such as your boss and co-workers, substitute terms such as “your organization,” “your team,” or simply “you.”

10. “I may be wrong, but…” or “This may be a silly idea, but…”

These phrases are known as discounting, Price explains. They diminish the impact of what follows and reduce your credibility. “Your spoken words reveal to the world how much value you place on yourself and your message. Eliminate any prefacing phrase that demeans the importance of who you are or lessens the significance of what you contribute.” Don’t say, “This may be a silly idea, but I was thinking that maybe we might conduct the quarterly meeting online instead, okay?” Instead, assert your recommendation: “To reduce travel costs and increase time efficiency, I recommend we conduct the quarterly meeting online.”

11. “Don’t you think?” or “Okay?” 

These phrases are known as hedging—seeking validation through overly cautious or non-committal words, Price says. “If your goal is to communicate a confident, commanding message and persuade people to see it your way, make your statement or recommendation with certainty.”

12. “I don’t have time for this right now,” or “I’m too busy.”

“Even if these statements are true, no one wants to feel less important than something or someone else,” Price says. To foster positive relations and convey empathy, say instead: “I’d be happy to discuss this with you after my morning meetings. May I stop by your office around 1pm?”

Jacquelyn Smith writes on leadership, jobs, and career issues for Forbes Magazine.

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