Leadership Advice

Managers: Your words matter, so avoid these

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

When you become a manager, your words have greater impact than you know.

Your specific and sincere praise can make someone’s day. Your criticisms can burn more than you know. 

Your language also defines your leadership style, for better or worse. To avoid the “worse” option, I suggest you avoid these statements:

  • There are lots of people who’d love to have your job. Bosses who use this line to shut down a complaint or concern are fighting dirty. Instead of dealing with issues, they are tacitly threatening people by saying they are easily replaceable and therefore dispensable.
  • Your paycheck is your thank you. That’s just factually incorrect. Your paycheck is the company keeping its legal obligation to compensate you for work. Gratitude is what good managers extend to people to build positive relationships and productive teams. We deserve compensation. We benefit from feeling truly appreciated.
  • We’re all one big family here. Leave this line to the staff. They’re the ones who really make that call. Managers can and should support a culture in which people are genuinely invested in each other’s well being, but all it takes is one round of layoffs to undermine a manager’s “we’re a family” claim. If you really are proud of the caring culture that you all enjoy, then quote your team members, “You can check with the staff to be sure, but many people have told me there’s a true sense of family here.”
  • This is not a democracy. Bosses who say this are insulting the intelligence of their staff. They know that managers have the ultimate responsibility for decision-making. They do, however, value being heard. I often remind managers that even in situations where the staff doesn’t have a vote, they are more likely to support decisions when they have a voice.
  • No whining. It’s just too easy to categorize negative feedback as “whining” in order to delegitimize it. If people are expressing concerns about wages, hours, working conditions, or their boss’s behaviors, dismissing that as “whining” won’t solve the underlying issues. And if managers truly believe a staff person is a “whiner” — that is, relentlessly and unfairly negative in ways that harm the team, then they should address that person’s behavior in a difficult but necessary conversation.
  • That’s a dumb idea. Not every idea is a winner, but when managers shoot them down in cruel or crass ways, it kills creativity and morale.
  • Because I’m the boss. If you have to remind the staff you are in charge, you’ve probably lost the room. 
  • Don’t bring your problems to work. If we’ve learned one thing during the pandemic, it’s that the best managers lead with empathy. They know it’s impossible for people to check their personal lives at the door. Every one of us has something going on with families, partners, friends, pets, personal health, and societal issues that takes up space in our minds and hearts — even as we try to do our best job at work. People remember and respect the leaders who supported them through challenges and also celebrated their joys.

So don’t talk yourself into trouble, dear managers — and you’ll have lots more joys to celebrate.


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Irv Harrell
Irv Harrell
2 years ago