The 10 Worst Things You Can Say At Work

The 10 Worst Things You Can Say At Work
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We all know that communication is vital in the office and can have a major effect on our careers. But how do we know if we’re communicating well, or if we’re potentially undermining ourselves at every turn with our words?

Aggressive co-worker picture from Shutterstock

Dr Travis Bradberry, the author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and co-founder of TalentSmart, pinpoints a number of common verbal faux pas in this post on LinkedIn. Apparently, using certain phrases can have a detrimental effect on how people perceive you. That’s not to say you should panic if you’ve ever made one of the following utterances – it would be a very dim HR department to penalise someone who had ever said “no problem” – but more a reminder that our words can have more of an impact that we think.

According to Dr Bradberry, here are the big no-no phrases if you value your career, along with his rationale for avoiding them:

#1 “It’s not fair”

Everyone knows that life isn’t fair. Saying it’s not fair suggests that you think life is supposed to be fair, which makes you look immature and naïve.

If you don’t want to make yourself look bad, you need to stick to the facts, stay constructive, and leave your interpretation out of it. For instance, you could say, “I noticed that you assigned Ann that big project I was hoping for. Would you mind telling me what went into that decision? I’d like to know why you thought I wasn’t a good fit, so that I can work on improving those skills.”

#2 “This is the way it’s always been done”

Technology-fuelled change is happening so fast that even a six-month-old process could be outdated. Saying this is the way it’s always been done not only makes you sound lazy and resistant to change, but it could make your boss wonder why you haven’t tried to improve things on your own. If you really are doing things the way they’ve always been done, there’s almost certainly a better way.

#3 “No problem”

When someone asks you to do something or thanks you for doing something, and you tell them no problem, you’re implying that their request should have been a problem. This makes people feel as though they’ve imposed upon you.

What you want to do instead is to show people that you’re happy to do your job. Say something like “It was my pleasure” or “I’ll be happy to take care of that.” It’s a subtle difference in language, but one that has a huge impact on people.

#4 “This may be a silly idea…/I’m going to ask a stupid question…”

These overly passive phrases instantly erode your credibility. Even if you follow these phrases with a great idea, they suggest that you lack confidence, which makes the people you’re speaking to lose confidence in you.

Don’t be your own worst critic. If you’re not confident in what you’re saying, no one else will be either. And, if you really don’t know something, say, “I don’t have that information right now, but I’ll find out and get right back to you.”

#5 “This will only take a minute”

Saying that something only takes a minute undermines your skills and gives the impression that you rush through tasks. Unless you’re literally going to complete the task in 60 seconds, feel free to say that it won’t take long, but don’t make it sound as though the task can be completed any sooner than it can actually be finished.

#6 “I’ll try”

Just like the word think, try sounds tentative and suggests that you lack confidence in your ability to execute the task. Take full ownership of your capabilities. If you’re asked to do something, either commit to doing it or offer an alternative, but don’t say that you’ll try because it sounds like you won’t try all that hard.

#7 “He’s lazy/incompetent/a jerk”

There is no upside to making a disparaging remark about a colleague. If your remark is accurate, everybody already knows it, so there’s no need to point it out. If your remark is inaccurate, you’re the one who ends up looking like a jerk.

There will always be rude or incompetent people in any workplace, and chances are that everyone knows who they are. If you don’t have the power to help them improve or to fire them, then you have nothing to gain by broadcasting their ineptitude. Announcing your colleague’s incompetence comes across as an insecure attempt to make you look better. Your callousness will inevitably come back to haunt you in the form of your coworkers’ negative opinions of you.

#8 “That’s not in my job description”

This often sarcastic phrase makes you sound as though you’re only willing to do the bare minimum required to keep getting a paycheck, which is a bad thing if you like job security.

If your boss asks you to do something that you feel is inappropriate for your position (as opposed to morally or ethically inappropriate), the best move is to complete the task eagerly. Later, schedule a conversation with your boss to discuss your role in the company and whether your job description needs an update. This ensures that you avoid looking petty. It also enables you and your boss to develop a long-term understanding of what you should and shouldn’t be doing.

#9 “It’s not my fault”

It’s never a good idea to cast blame. Be accountable. If you had any role—no matter how small—in whatever went wrong, own it. If not, offer an objective, dispassionate explanation of what happened. Stick to the facts, and let your boss and colleagues draw their own conclusions about who’s to blame.

The moment you start pointing fingers is the moment people start seeing you as someone who lacks accountability for their actions. This makes people nervous. Some will avoid working with you altogether, and others will strike first and blame you when something goes wrong.

#10 “I can’t”

I can’t is it’s not my fault’s twisted sister. People don’t like to hear I can’t because they think it means I won’t. Saying I can’t suggests that you’re not willing to do what it takes to get the job done.

If you really can’t do something because you truly lack the necessary skills, you need to offer an alternative solution. Instead of saying what you can’t do, say what you can do. For example, instead of saying “I can’t stay late tonight,” say “I can come in early tomorrow morning. Will that work?” Instead of “I can’t run those numbers,” say “I don’t yet know how to run that type of analysis. Is there someone who can show me so that I can do it on my own next time?”

This article originally appeared on Lifehacker UK and has been updated since its original publication.


  • Yeahhh i disagree with remark #7

    my superintendent doesn’t know half of what people do, only what he reads in reports, and the reports show shining perfect employees

  • A few off the list are just professional common sense.

    Id have to disagree with #3 and #10*
    I use #3 daily as its the quickest response I can think of when receiving a task to let them know that I can handle the task without issue, ‘No problem’

    #10* – providing you have a follow up to it to explain why you cant.
    ‘Can you SSH into this server and get this done?’ ‘I cant, I dont have access to that server but I can get John to do it’.

    Defiantly not things to say at work to instil confidence in your ability but hardly ‘The worst’ things to say.

    • What you want to do instead is to show people that you’re happy to do your job. Say something like “It was my pleasure” or “I’ll be happy to take care of that.” It’s a subtle difference in language, but one that has a huge impact on people.

      Those two sound kind of wankey. Like you’re trying to ingratiate yourself, especially if it is said to a superior. “No problem” doesn’t sound sycophantic.

      • That said, if you actually mean it, people can tell.

        I sign off most calls or conversations with, “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
        I know that ‘have a nice day’ is such a cliche, but if you mean it, people respond pretty positively.

        I say, “Happy to do it,” a lot, usually when people are apologizing for what they think si bothering me with something trivial, and I genuinely want to reassure them that it really isn’t a problem and I’d much rather they call me and get it solved than just stew.

  • 3: “No problem”

    If I don’t respect my time, who else will? If my subconscious word choice implies that you’re imposing on me, then it’s very likely that you are imposing, and shouldn’t be.

    That said… ‘no problem’ is basically ‘no worries,’ and less likely to be taken as some passive-aggression in Australia than in the US.

    8: “That’s not in my job description”

    Being a rules-lawyer pedant with no flexibility or willingness to pitch in with the team is one thing, being a doormat is another. Exploitation is real – managers can, have, and will continue to try and get underpaid workers to perform tasks that they’re capable of, but which are really the responsibility of higher paid roles. You shouldn’t jump to, “It’s not my job,” straight off the bat, because pitching in at a higher level is a great way to prove your worthiness to be in a higher-paid role, but if it becomes habit, you need to put your foot down.

    10: “I can’t”

    We pretty frequently get unreasonable requests. A VIP made a very important decision and told the media it will happen next week, but we can’t get the infrastructure in place for two months.

    “You can’t get what you want,” is an important thing to be able to say. But it should definitely be followed with alternatives.
    “…This is the best you’re going to be able to get.”
    Leaving people hanging with no idea where to turn is just rude. Point them in the right direction, at least.

  • As a manager, PLEASE don’t use that “I don’t have that information right now…” line. A simple “I don’t know” is far more straightforward and respectable. No one expects people to know everything & blowing smoke up one’s a** with that other waffle comes across as really douchey.

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