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10 things great leaders never say to their employees


As a leader, managing people will probably always be your toughest task.

Are you giving your employees the tools and support they need to get their jobs done efficiently and effectively? Do they respect you and their coworkers? Are they engaged and fulfilled in their roles?

Each of these questions – and countless others – likely weigh heavily on your mind.

But your employees don’t know what you’re thinking. They can’t see your detailed thoughts, heartfelt appreciation and the work you do behind the scenes to set them up for success.

All they have to go off of is how you treat them…and what you say to them.

Are you saying what you really mean? Or are the comments you’re making on a daily basis eroding morale, negatively impacting motivation and destroying trust?

It’s time to find out.

Here are 10 phrases leaders should never use when speaking to employees.

1. “Do what I tell you to do. I’m the boss.” (When an employee refuses to do something.)

Everyone is an adult at work. If you’re setting different standards for yourself, you can’t expect your employees to respect what you ask them to do. Using the above phrase when speaking to your team is demeaning and disrespectful.

If an employee doesn’t understand why something needs to be done, provide more detail. Help them see how doing what you’ve asked will benefit them, the team and the company as a whole. You can also find out why an employee doesn’t want to do something they’re asked to do by saying, “Help me understand why this is a no.” Even if the employee still says no, you can emphasize the importance of the task and set expectations of consequences for not following through.

– Lisa Jasper, Director, Performance Support
Kingwood, Texas

2. “Don’t waste my time; we’ve already tried that before.”

People add value by sharing their thoughts and ideas about processes they see or are using on a daily basis. There’s a good chance that the ideas they share have been thought of before or even tried before. Phrases like, “We already knew that” or “We already tried that” can shut down initiative and innovation without considering a fresh perspective.

A simple thank-you is a great way to encourage open dialogue and ideas. You might say, “Thank you for sharing that.” Or let them know, “It’s interesting that you brought that up.” Welcome their contributions and points of view by saying things like, “Share with me your insight or perspective on how to make it better.”

– Pete Hinojosa, Thought Leadership Director
Kingwood, Texas

3. “I’m disappointed in you.”

This is a phrase that parents often use with their children. It may make an employee feel that they’re being treated like a child.

Instead, provide specific and constructive feedback. For example, say, “I’m disappointed in the work you submitted on the project.” Then tell them why. “The slides were not formatted correctly and were difficult to follow.” Offer support and suggestions for the next project. You could say, “For the next presentation, why don’t we meet and do a final review before presenting the information to the team?”

– Insperity Staff

4. “I’ve noticed that some of you are consistently arriving late for work. You all need to make sure you do what it takes to be on time every day.” (Shared with everyone in an email/meeting.)

Don’t use the “shotgun feedback” method. If one person is causing an issue, such as showing up late consistently, don’t send a blanket email to the team attempting to correct the behavior. The person at fault may not even realize it’s directed toward them anyway, and the rest of the team could become frustrated that they’re being penalized for something they’re not doing. Also, if the issue mentioned in the email continues, the team may begin resenting you for letting it go on without action, rather than individually addressing the problem employee.

Instead, address the situation directly (and privately) with the one person at fault.

– Insperity Staff

5. “You don’t need to understand why we’re doing it this way. You just need to trust that your leadership will always do the right thing.”

No one wants to feel like a “sheeple.” Everyone wants to feel like they’re part of a larger community where their thoughts actually matter to others and add value to the organization. This is just another way of saying, “Because I said so,” which, of course, always did the trick for putting our questions to rest when we were children – right? Wrong.

A better way to phrase this might be, “We have considered as much information as possible in making this decision, including the input many of you have contributed. As always, we are open to your thoughts, but for now, this seems to be the best path for our team/department/company/organization.”

– Tony Lewis, Senior Recruiting & Outplacement Specialist
Kingwood, Texas

6. “You’re lucky to have a job.” (When an employee has a negative attitude toward taking on more work or pushes back on a job request.)

No one works well in an environment where they are made to feel like they’re indebted to their employer. If it’s not working out with a particular employee, the manager should deal with the performance issues at hand and find a way to correct them – or part ways with the employee.

If your employee is saying no, when asked to perform a particular task, just seek to understand. Instead say, “Tell me your reasons why,” or ask, “What’s holding you back?”

– Lisa Jasper, Director, Performance Improvement
Kingwood, Texas

7. “Why didn’t you do this?”/”Why did you do it that way?”

Why is a powerful motivator when used to explain something. It allows someone to hear the reasoning behind a process or belief, or the value behind a decision that has been made. Why can also be a de-motivator if it’s used to question someone’s behavior. It’s human nature to feel the need to defend our reasoning, beliefs or values when someone challenges us with “Why?”

Use how or what instead. Phrases like “How can I help?” or “What can I do to support you?” are good alternatives.

– Pete Hinojosa, Thought Leadership Director
Kingwood, Texas

8. “I’m excited to announce XYZ and I’ve worked hard, long hours to get this prepared for viewing.” (Said in a meeting or public setting, when one of your employees has actually done the work.)

Never take credit for an employee’s work, especially in front of the team. Claiming that you came up with, designed or produced something that was actually done by an employee demoralizes them and makes it look like you aren’t willing to share the spotlight.

Instead, take a moment to highlight the person/team who contributed significantly. Everyone appreciates public recognition, and you will still get credit as the leader of that person/team.

– Insperity Staff

9. “Nice job today.”

A statement like this is too vague to be impactful, leaving employees unsure of exactly what they did well, other than show up to work! This may lead them to believe that you’re not really paying attention to what they’re doing and that you’re just giving generic manager platitudes.

Instead, be specific. For example, say, “Awesome job on handling that upset customer this morning. You really showed patience and great decision-making!”

– Chris Brennan, Performance Specialist
Los Angeles, California

10. “Vacation? Didn’t you just take vacation?”/“Why do you need to go on vacation?”

Making statements like these to your employees can make them feel bad or guilty for taking the time off that they’ve earned.

Instead, support them by saying, “Vacation? Good for you. It’s important to have work/life balance and for you to take time off. Enjoy!”

– Eric Kilponen, Product Marketing Manager
Kingwood, Texas

Are you guilty of any of the above?

Don’t worry, it’s not too late to make a change.

Start listening to what your employees are saying to you. What are they asking for? What is their body language really saying? Ask some additional questions for clarification when needed.

And make sure you replace the 10 negative phrases above with more positive ones, like those suggested.

Looking for more ways to become a well-respected, motivational leader? Download our free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management.