Things Your Boss Should Never Say To You: An Employee's Perspective to Become a Better Leader

You can find plenty of sites about things that your boss should never say to you. Unfortunately, all of these are to help employees find out if they’re part of a toxic workplace. But if you’re a manager, these may not be all that helpful. Instead, you need some perspective—and there’s no better way than to contemplate from the employee’s perspective.

By understanding what you should never say to your employees, you can become a more effective leader, as well as one that’s trusted, engaging—and maybe even adored. Go deeper into the psyche of your staff with these things a boss should never say to an employee—entirely from an employee’s point of view.

1. No

two women having a standoff at work

A simple “no” is direct and to the point, but it’s also one that isn’t constructive and one of the things your boss should never say to you as an employee.

But if you’re a manager, it’s something that won’t fly, even if you may not have been trying to be detrimental. You just had a straightforward answer to a question. Or perhaps you were dealing with a difficult employee.

Regardless of the reasoning, shutting down an employee is never a viable option. Such a response broods anger and resentment among team members. If you constantly repeat “no,” this resentment festers, which can lead to a fallout with you and other coworkers, especially as word travels.

What to do instead: Always use active listening in meetings or in times of conflict, and note that you don’t have to make instant decisions on input or feedback from employees. This approach will help you become more receptive and open-minded to new ideas.

2. It’s Not My Fault

Accountability is part of your job as a manager. But it’s not just part of watching over employees’ actions. It’s holding yourself accountable for your own actions and performance. When you tell your employees that something isn’t your fault, you break away from accountability.

Even if something technically isn’t your fault, the perspective of your team is that you’re lacking in power and accountability. Not only does this make you seem like you have less clout, but it also makes you appear weak. That one-two punch can lead to a loss of respect, which can turn into less productivity, a loss in morale, and even a downward spiral of employee retention.

What to do instead: Own up to your mistakes. Good leaders can motivate employees, but great leaders can admit when they’re wrong and lead by example. In cases where something isn’t your fault, you don’t necessarily have to take the fall, but remain in control of your words and actions.

3. Can I Be Honest?

It sounds innocent enough, and for some people, it’s just a habitual phrase. However, “can I be honest?” elicits some negative responses from anyone you talk to. Not only is it one of the things your boss should never say to you as a manager, but it’s also something you shouldn’t pass down to employees.

When you ask this, the question of whether you’ve been honest in the past comes into play. Some employees may fear that this is one of the rare times that you’re telling the truth and other times are anomalies.

What to do instead: Eliminate this phrase from your vocabulary altogether, whether it’s in your personal life or professional career. While seemingly innocuous, people can take this phrase the wrong way. Always err on the side of caution.

4. I’m Hungover From Last Night

Man putting alk-seltzer because he's hungover.

In an attempt to bond with employees, managers often try to socialize and find common ground. There’s nothing innately wrong with that—seeing each other as people instead of just coworkers can improve morale, engagement, and camaraderie.

But ask almost just about anybody one of the things your boss should never say to you, and you’ll find that “I’m hungover” is never a great option. Not only is this a red flag about how seriously you take your position, but you may also offend people who either look up to you or don’t drink.

What to do instead: As a rule of thumb, don’t cross the boundary between manager and friend. Even if you like your employees, a good manager knows how to toe the line. Moreover, what you consider to be a friendship may just be an employee making the best of their time at work. The bottom line: Keep your discussions friendly and light if you need to take a break from talking about the job.

5. Didn’t You Just Take a Vacation?

Americans left 768 million vacation days unused in 2019. Canadians didn’t fare much better, with only 29% saying that they would take all their vacation days in 2022. These jaw-dropping statistics may have you wondering why a person would leave paid time off (PTO) on the table at their current job, but the answer is overwhelmingly simple: the fear of being left behind or overlooked.

While this is a problem of work in Western civilization, it’s at its height in the industrious, Westernized nations of North America. However, it comes with significant detriment. Burnout and health risks—both mental and physical—can plague those who work constantly.

As a result, one of the things your boss should never say to you as a manager or from you to your employees is to question your vacation time. It’s a necessary part of any company whether established or a startup, and something that allows them to do their best work moving forward.

What to do instead: The best leaders put a premium on work-life balance, and so should you. While an employee with a new job may not be the person who should take a vacation right off the bat, you shouldn’t discourage employees from the benefits that are rightfully theirs. Encouraging employees to take a break and recharge their batteries shows them that they’re valued, which can lead to positive long-term results.

6. Figure It Out

Woman yelling at workers

Autonomy is an integral part of the modern workplace, especially in the digital age. It allows employees to work at their own pace and can even enable people to transform from employees into leaders themselves.

But even with a degree of autonomy comes the need for support. Even if someone knows their duties and what’s entailed in the job description, telling them to simply “figure it out” may not have the empowering effect you think it will have.

What to do instead: Even the best business owners, managers, leaders, and employees need support from time to time. Rather than giving the cold shoulder to requests for help, act as a support system or point the person in the right direction. If you want everyone to act like a team player, you may as well play the role as well.

Reduce the Change of Things Your Boss Should Never Say To You and By Being Mindful of How You Speak to Employees

Woman smiling at work

If you’ve found yourself guilty of any of the phrases listed above, you’re certainly not alone. Even the best managers falter from time to time. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, up to 84% of managers create unnecessary stress in the workplace due to a lack of training in terms of communication.

However, making the effort to change is never too far away. Use a few of these tips and hacks to help you watch what you say around employees.

Let Go of Pretentiousness or Arrogance

You didn’t get to become a manager or a leader for no reason. You obviously have the knowledge, soft skills, and leadership qualities that make you the ideal person for the position. But you must make every effort to not let it go to your head.

When you make decisions or speak with an air of pretentiousness or arrogance, hurtful words will emerge. Change your perception as a leader into that of a team player, and you should find that these words disappear.

Listen More and Speak Less

Active listening is one of the most important aspects of being a manager. This involves you analyzing body language, speech patterns and intonations, and listening to—not hearing—the message coming from employees.

If you’re constantly thinking about what you’re going to say next, you’ve already failed. Make a vested effort to speak less and listen more. And if you’ve been thinking inwardly about things your boss should never say to you, a commitment to listening is the appropriate response. You might just find that your employees respond better.

No More Buts

“Yes, but...”—the phrase is shrouded in annoyance and dismissal by just about anyone that hears it. So get rid of it altogether as a manager.

Instead, start to use “yes, and.” This phrase eliminates the dismissive nature of but and lessens the arrogance that people perceive when you use but.

If you’re struggling with this concept, try saying “yes” accompanied by a repeat of what the person said to you to affirm you were listening. Then, follow it up with a frank discussion about how the issue at hand may not be possible.

More Training Is Always a Solution

Tips and hacks to watch what you say are great exercises in restraint, but you may want to take it one step further. Leadership training for managers doesn’t necessarily dedicate all of its time to verbiage but it does provide a well-rounded approach to management solutions.

If you want your employees to end their online search for “things your boss should never say to you,” this type of training is a step in the right direction. The only thing you have left to do is put these ideas into action.

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