The 9 worst things a leader can say

Actions may speak louder than words, but words can still drop you in it.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2020

An essential challenge of leadership is to be simultaneously decisive and inspirational, when very often these two aims are at odds.

Being decisive requires quick thinking and a bias to action - often under significant time pressure - plus the confidence to back your decisions once you’ve made them.

But when every throwaway comment can send confusing, counterproductive and potentially toxic signals, this shoot-from-the-hip style can inadvertently undermine your efforts to motivate your people.

It may be tempting to prioritise the inspirational aspect of leadership at the expense of the decisive, but this too would be unwise. Name a single leader of quality who was indecisive, who didn’t take responsibility or who constantly second-guessed themselves - we don’t expect you’ll get very far. Both are required, in different or perhaps changing proportions.

Squaring this circle ultimately requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence and presence of mind - the kinds of things that emerge from a lifetime of wisdom. 

While you're waiting, we’ve put together a checklist of some of the worst things we’ve heard leaders say. If you find yourself uttering these words on a regular basis, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader, but you may want to learn to bite your tongue. 

1. “Which candidate do you think is the strongest? I think David”

A classic case of leading the witness. “As soon as a person in power gives their ideas, it completely quells anything else from the group. I know CEOs who’ve said to me ‘I ask them questions, but they never answer me, I never get any input whatsoever’, and when you analyse it it’s because they give their ideas first,” says Ros Taylor, leadership coach and founder of the Ros Taylor Company.

If you actually want to get other people’s opinions on something, wait to hear what they have to say.

2. “I always knew it wouldn’t work”

‘I told you so’ is not a constructive approach to failure. “It’s shaming people for trying to improve or innovate a process,” says Kate Hammer, coach and founder of innovation boutique Throughline.

New things won’t always work, but they won’t happen at all if you make people scared of trying.

3. “We’re a family friendly organisation”

This isn’t a bad thing to say per se, so long as you actually mean it. Nobody likes a hypocrite. “You get these big vision statements, but when it comes to weekends, you’re still putting your job on the line if you don’t come in and work on this project. Actions speak louder than words,” says Taylor.

4. “How are you?”

Again, not a bad thing to say at all - most of the time. “Never ask someone how their day is going unless you are going to listen with genuine respect and interest to their response,” says Jeff Phipps, UK and Ireland managing director at ADP.

Showing that you care about the people you work with can do wonders for corporate culture (you may just enjoy your work a little more too), but if you don’t care, please don’t pretend that you do - people can see through it.

5. “Stay in your lane”

Many leaders talk about breaking down silos and unleashing the ideas of their whole organisation, but a few simple words can reinforce the barriers and shut people down. “Thanks, but ideas like this are above your pay grade” has a similar effect, says Hammer - both kill innovative thinking.

6. “You’ll now be reporting to Sarah; Sarah will be reporting to me”

Psychologists identify various motivators for people at work, including money, influence, meaning, expertise and status. If someone is motivated by the latter, then suddenly introducing a new layer of management above them could be profoundly demotivating.

“If you don’t take the time to understand your team and what motivates them, you can undermine them so easily, without even knowing it. If someone is motivated by money and you don’t give them a pay rise or someone’s motivated by expertise and you decide to cut back on training or conferences, you can really do a lot of damage,” says Taylor.

7. “Leave it with me”

Let’s say someone comes to you with a problem with a colleague or another member of the leadership team. You listen, say you’ll sort it out, and then you forget. “When nothing happens, the person with the concern feels exposed,” says Hammer. If you say you’re going to do something - especially if it’s sensitive or clearly important to somebody - it’s essential to follow it through.

8. Too little

Sometimes, in the quest to empower employees, it’s possible to keep just a little too quiet. “In lieu of leadership, people will come to their own conclusions and they will often be incorrect. I also think it matters less what you say and more about being consistent, as people like to know what they are dealing with,” says Phipps.

9. Too much

But that’s not an excuse to dominate the conversation. “In a lot of meetings, people do their presentations, then the leader gives them their damning feedback, they talk all over them, and then they go away without understanding that were all sorts of ideas and concerns around the table that never got addressed,” says Taylor. 

“They think the meeting went really well, but there’s insurrection in the toilets afterwards, and the leader has no idea because they didn’t invite discussion, they didn’t want it - they wanted compliance.”

A simple solution?

There are many other problematic things that leaders can say, and it’s hard to avoid them all. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to focus as much on what you should say instead. For this, Taylor recommends the word ‘why’.

“If there’s a piece of work that turns up late, instead of saying ‘you stupid idiot, go away and get it done’, ask why it was late and listen to the answer. ‘Well my father died that day.’ Oh. It only takes five seconds longer to listen, but it makes a huge difference to the person who hears it.” 

We live in an age of numbing uncertainty, crisis and fierce competition. How do we navigate through these conditions and drive growth after the pandemic has passed? Join Management Today’s new digital Leadership Lessons Conference to hear from some of Britain’s most successful CEOs on how they are transforming and future-proofing their businesses and increasing their profits. Learn how to grow your business, develop your workforce and position your brand for the future by virtually attending this three-day event.

Image credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

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