7 Phrases You Should Never Say at Work

male and female coworkers standing in hallway casually talking

How you say something at work can have just as much of an impact as what you say. The way you communicate with your coworkers or boss can send subtle (or overt) messages about your level of commitment to your job, your interest in helping others and being a true collaborator, your attitude toward the people you work with and even your character or integrity.

Here are some of the more common phrases you hear in the workplace that should be off limits if you want to be professional, capable and proactive:

“This may be a stupid idea but…”

If you find yourself often ‘qualifying’ your ideas or apologizing for your opinions or suggestions, take steps to break this bad communication habit as soon as possible. Saying things like “I’m sorry if this is wrong but…” or “I know this probably doesn’t make sense but…” indicates that you have little confidence in your own value or ideas.

“It is what it is”

This phrase signals you’re not interested in finding creative solutions or new and better ways of working and are satisfied with coasting along even if your approach isn’t getting good results. It tells your colleagues that there’s no way to improve and that they should stop trying to find ways to solve problems and just live with them.

“That’s not my problem”

If it happens in your organization, it is your ‘problem.’ While the issue may not fall under your direct purview or job description, you can still be a part of the solution by suggesting that it be passed along to a particular colleague or team member. Your tone and the way you phrase any sort of a hand-off are important because it could indicate you simply don’t care. Instead of addressing a question or a problem with “that’s not my job” or “that’s not my problem,” say something like, “I’m not as well-versed in that area as ‘so-and-so’ is -- maybe we can solve this faster if we reach out to her/him for help.”

“It’s the way we’ve always done it”

Much like “it is what it is,” this is a common workplace phrase that really contributes nothing to the conversation, other than perhaps indicating to everyone you work with that you’re not very forward-thinking or growth-oriented. If “the way you’ve always done” something isn’t working, the only sensible thing to do is find a new approach. Phrases like this indicate your reluctance to do this, and it also signals that you’re wholly disinterested in getting things right and advancing the goals of your team, your department, or the company as a whole.

“I told you so”

Saying “I told you so” to colleagues who’ve tried something new but it hasn’t quite worked comes across as petty, spiteful and just plain rude. There’s nothing in this phrase that adds value, contributes to finding a solution or even offers constructive criticism that could help your colleague succeed in future tries. If you’re in a position or have the type of relationship with them where it’s even appropriate that you’re offering feedback, praise them for at least making an effort and try to offer helpful advice or insights on how they can improve their approach going forward. This is pretty important if you’re in a management or leadership position, in which case you certainly don’t want to discourage creativity, innovation, problem-solving or initiative by shaming your employees when they get it wrong.

“I’m really busy”

Well, you know what? So is everyone else around you. If you find you’re in the midst of an unusually busy time or your workload is overly-demanding, let your colleagues know that you’ve got a lot of extra tasks on your plate and -- this is the important part -- be honest with them about when they can expect your response time on things you’re working on together. You don’t want to come off as someone who’s just ‘too busy’ to be bothered by them, which can build resentment.  ​

“I don’t care”

This negative phrase pretty much speaks for itself, and it’s not difficult to understand how this could come across in a bad way to your boss or coworkers. In reality, there may be several aspects of your organization that you’re less interested or invested in than others -- that’s normal. Few people in a company have a personal stake in everything. But, it’s the way you voice that lack of concern or interest that matters here. In this case, rather than admitting you don’t care about something going on at work or about issues your colleagues are dealing with, it’s wise to just say nothing at all.

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