5 Things Successful Leaders Don’t Say

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 3, 2017

“I am the expert of my intention, but you are the expert of my impact.”

This popular leadership catch phrase is one of the reasons many leaders struggle today. How many times have you had a conversation with someone only to learn they interpreted your message differently than you intended? Or found they were hung up on one phrase or word, completely missing the point?

The words you use as a leader, even if with no ill intent, can still produce a negative impact on your team. The problem is that you might not even know you’re doing it.

Related: 13 Communication Mistakes Leaders Make

Here are five common phrases that can create push-back from your employees:

1. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Have you ever called customer service and heard, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” Frustrating, right? This phrase insinuates you are out of ideas. Would you follow someone who was out of ideas? Good leaders are never out of ideas; there are just things they haven’t tried yet. You might feel frustrated and feel like there’s nothing you can do at the moment, but if you frequently use this phrase, expect your team to feel hopeless and pessimistic.

Replace it with: “If I had a magic wand, what else could I do?”

2. “Always” and “Never”

Absolute phrases are dangerous to have in your leadership vernacular. The old adage “never say never” holds true here. When it comes to leading others, remember that people have long memories and these types of absolutes could come back to haunt you. The more ridiculous your absolute comment, the more it will be remembered.

Replace it with: “Usually,” “sometimes” or “I haven’t experienced that yet.”

3. “No, because….”

This phrase brands you as a negative leader, or worse, the leader who isn’t open to new ideas. If you find yourself consistently thinking or saying, “We can’t do that because it’s never worked in the past,” or “No, because we’ve always done it this way…” this might be you. Employees have a hard time following a negative leader. If one of your team members offers a new idea, it doesn’t take too many “No, because …” comments before they stop coming altogether.

Replace it with: “Yes, we could do that if…”

4. “Does that make sense?”

You might be looking for agreement or to ensure clarity by using this phrase, but it insinuates that your employees just don’t understand. Not only that, but this kind of phrasing just sounds like a lecture from your parents. One of the quickest ways to close the door of communication is to talk down to someone. Expect to see resistance when you take this approach.

Replace it with: “Do you have any questions for clarification?” or “I’m not sure I’m explaining this correctly. What do you think?”

5. “But”

I blame the “sandwich technique” for this one. As leaders, we are often taught to soften a critique by starting with a compliment, such as “I really like your work, but you need to get better at meeting deadlines.” When your employees catch on to your consistently using this one, they start to know there’s a but coming and they brace for it. In fact, they might completely gloss over your compliment or start to doubt your sincerity.

Replace it with: Any variety of phrases! Mix it up and get rid of the word “but” altogether. You could also consider just letting the compliment stand alone. Not everything has to be a teachable moment.

Most leaders use these phrases on a daily basis, yet they are usually unaware of their impact. When you become self-aware enough to pick up your own vernacular habits—or even take the time to ask for team feedback on your communication style—you might be surprised at the effect changing a few key phrases can have. A small language tweak can make a large impact.

Related: 10 Phrases to Drop from Your Vocabulary

Ryan Lisk

Ryan Lisk is the second-generation owner of Lisk Associates, a firm that specializes in the selection and development of people. He has trained, selected and coached more 10,000 people for his clients. He is also a faculty member for The Complete Leader. Ryan owns the RealTime Coaching system and has co-authored RealTime Coaching Revisited