As a leader, motivating and inspiring people is one of your most important tasks, and the words you say (and how you say them) are one of your most powerful tools for doing so. After all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” While there are plenty of things you should say, there are some things great leaders should never say.
What leaders should never say
If you strive to be a great leader, here are seven statements to take out of our vocabulary completely:
1. “There are no problems, only opportunities.”
Yes, problems do come up, and denying them doesn’t make them go away. Although this phrase may be used to encourage team members, it can also communicate that the leader isn’t willing to listen when there are real challenges to overcome. It makes the leader look out of touch with the needs of their team.
The fix: Always be willing to listen to your employees, and ensure they know it. The result may be employees who are much more willing to tackle challenges and bring you solutions.
2. Leaders should never say, “Don’t do anything without asking me first.”
Unless someone is new to a job, micromanaging their every step hinders their performance and harms productivity. When leaders micromanage everything, they bottleneck the process and lower employee morale and motivation. Employees are happier and more productive when they have meaningful work and the autonomy to do their job.
The fix: Instead of micromanaging, clarify expectations ahead of time. Check on employees when appropriate based on their training and ability and follow up with feedback on how they are doing. The goal is to put the right people in the right places and enable them to succeed.
3. “Don’t bring me any bad news.”
Telling employees this doesn’t make the bad news go away, but it may keep a leader from finding out about it in time for it to be managed. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state said, “Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” It’s always better to tackle a problem when it’s small than wait until it’s costly or causes bad publicity.
The fix: Create an environment where employees are encouraged to bring up issues when they appear so they can be solved.
4. Leaders should never say, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”
Business is all about relationships, and relationships are personal. Many employees spend many of their waking hours at work, so it’s important for leaders to pay attention to their well-being in the workplace.
The fix: Create a culture where employees know you have a passion for your work while also having empathy for people. Demonstrate that you respect them by treating them the way they want to be treated.
5. “We don’t need any more ideas.”
Leaders may reject creative ideas not because those ideas don’t have potential, but because they aren’t capable of handling the uncertainty that goes with backing an idea that may be innovative while also posing a potential risk, such as loss or negative judgment from their boss. After all, if the leader backs an unproven idea and the idea goes down in flames, they may, too. The unintended result is that an organization doesn’t thrive and progress without an influx of innovative (and sometimes edgy) ideas.
The fix: Open yourself up to new ideas and ways of thinking. Take employees’ ideas seriously, and get an unbiased person you trust to evaluate how a new idea could be implemented with changes in strategy or process.
6. “I don’t want any interruptions.”
Leaders may see frequent interruptions over the course of a workday. You need time to plan and reflect. But if your door is always closed and employees never come to update you, it’s probably because the message is clear: You are too busy to be bothered. While you might get more work done, the downside is you don’t find out what is going well or what needs your guidance.
The fix: Stop what you are doing, turn away from your computer and really listen to your people. When you need to complete an important task and don’t have time to listen, try saying, “I really want to be able to listen to this because it’s an important topic. Please come back in an hour so I can give it my complete attention.” That way, you will stay informed and still be able to complete the things you need a longer block of time to do.
7. Leaders should never say, “Failure is not an option.”
Leaders who adopt this philosophy may instill fear and anxiety in their employees because mistakes are not allowed. No one can take risks or try anything new because they always have to play it safe. This is one way for leaders to build a stagnant culture. Failure is often a teaching tool to bring us to something greater.
The fix: Ensure your employees know mistakes aren’t fatal. The goal is to discover mistakes quickly, correct them and move forward. If you wait for flawlessness, you will never begin anything new. The real failure is letting fear keep you developing an idea until it’s perfect.
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Kostiantyn Voitenko/Shutterstock
Susan C. Foster is a former executive, 24/7 workaholic who now coaches executives and careerists. She is a Master Coach and writer, and is the author of It’s Not Rocket Science: Leading, Inspiring, and Motivating Your Team to Be Their Best.