Managers' words carry enormous weight with the people they manage – and the wrong words can destroy employee morale and motivation. Yet bad managers go on saying the wrong things repeatedly.
Here are 10 of the most common phrases you'll hear from bad managers – and why they're wrong.
1. "You're lucky to even have a job." This is a favorite refrain of bad managers who really mean: "You should be grateful that you're employed during this bad job market and therefore shouldn't complain about any conditions of your employment, no matter how bad." These are generally managers who don't know how to deal with problems or staff feedback constructively. If your manager says this, take it as a sign that you're dealing with someone inept.
2. "Just figure it out." Sure, there are times when employees really should be able to find solutions themselves, but in general, managers who say this are abdicating their responsibility to guide and coach. Even if the question is one that a reasonable employee should be able to solve on her own, a good manager would more clearly say, "This is something that I'd like you to handle yourself, using resources X, Y and Z." "Just figure it out" is both lazy and unkind.
3. "I received an anonymous report…" Good managers will do everything they can to avoid citing anonymous reports when talking to employees. Sometimes managers do need to address problems that they were told about in confidence, but when that happens, a skillful manager won't put the focus on the anonymous reporter, but rather on the problematic behavior that needs to be addressed.
4. "I don't have time to do your performance evaluation, but you're doing fine." Part of managing well is supplying thorough, nuanced feedback. It doesn't have to be through a formal performance evaluation, but "you're doing fine" doesn't come close to cutting it. Employees deserve to know what they're doing well, how they could be doing better and where they should focus on developing.
5. "That's a dumb idea." Let's face it, not every idea is a brilliant one. But good managers know that you won't hear great ideas if their staff is afraid of being insulted and shot down when brainstorming. Great ideas usually come from environments where it's safe to think out loud and toss ideas around, good or bad.
6. "That dress really flatters your figure." Commenting on employees' physical appearance – particularly their bodies – is a good way to make people uncomfortable (few people want to feel that their boss is assessing their attractiveness), as well as invite harassment complaints down the road.
7. "You don't need to know what this is for – just do what I tell you to do." Sure, it could be faster to simply bark out orders without providing any context or rationale. But that's how you end up with a staff of employees who don't think beyond what's required and don't feel any ownership for their work – and the good ones will move on to a company where they're allowed to feel a personal stake in their work.
8. "What's wrong with you?" Feedback should never be personal. Good managers keep the focus on behavior that needs to change – writing skills, attention to detail, judgment or so forth. They don't make it personal and attack someone's intelligence or worth.
9. "Your job is what I say it is." This is of course true; your job is what your manager says it is. But bad managers generally say this when an employee is resisting doing work outside her core role. By contrast, a good manager will explain the circumstances when a role needs to broaden or change, rather than simply falling back on "I control what you do."
10. "You're so much better at this than Bob is." Putting down another staff member, even when it's supposed to be a compliment to another, signals to the employee being "complimented" that it might be her you're putting down someday. Employees want to trust their managers to give them feedback in private, not make unflattering comments about them to their co-workers.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.