Business clichés that lazy executives love (unfortunately)

This is probably not what you want to hear, but perception is reality, and though you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you’ll have to work smarter, not harder. After all, it is what it is.

Some platitudes are just irritating. Others, used the wrong way (wait, is there a right way to use a cliché?), serve to shut down discussions—and people.

Trotting out a cliché allows a leader to avoid explaining, avoid justifying, avoid having a deeper and more meaningful conversation—in short, avoid being a real leader.

Like these:

“We need to work smarter, not harder.”

This is irritating for a few reasons. One, you imply I’m stupid. (Otherwise why would I need to work smarter?) Two, you imply that whatever I’m doing should take a lot less time and effort. Three, you leave it to me to figure out what “smarter” means (if “smarter” even exists) when I obviously don’t know or I’d already be doing it that way.

And four, I know you don’t mean the “we” part.

If you know I can be more efficient, tell me how. If you know there is a better way, show me how. If you think there might be a better way but don’t know what it is, admit you don’t know and work with me to figure it out.

Most important, recognize that sometimes the only thing to do, especially in the moment, is to buckle down and get it done—so stop talking and start helping.

“There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Sure there is: There are as many I’s as team members, and those individuals—the more “individual” the better—make the team stronger because the best teams are a funky blend of each individual’s talents, perspectives, and goals.

If you want a team to work hard and achieve more, make sure each person feels she can achieve a personal goals as well as the team’s overall objective. Figuring out how each individual can do both, instead of repressing individuality in the pursuit of some collective ideal.

The best teams are made up of people who feel that when the team wins, so can they.

“It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Fate rarely has anything to do with failure. Something went wrong. Figure out what went wrong, and learn from it.

Plus, “Oh, it just wasn’t meant to be,” places responsibility elsewhere. “Let’s figure out what we did wrong so we can do better next time,” is empowering because it places the responsibility where it should be.

On me. On you. On us.

“This is probably not what you want to hear.”

It’s never fun to hear bad news, but when you preface a comment by saying it won’t be what I want to hear, you shift the issue over to my side of the table. You make it my problem.

Don’t. Explain why you made a decision. Explain the logic. Explain your reasoning.

I still may not want to hear it, but at least the focus remains on the issue and not on me.

“Perception is reality.”

Yeah, yeah, I know: How I perceive something is my version of reality, no matter how wrong my perception may be. If other people perceive a reality differently from the way you do, work to change that perception. Make reality the reality.

Besides, perceptions are fleeting and constantly changing. Reality lasts forever, or at least until a new reality comes along to replace it.

“We’ll do it now and apologize later.”

Use this one, and you’re not a bold, daring risk taker; you’re lazy and self-indulgent. Good ideas are rarely stifled. People like “better.” If they don’t like your idea, the problem usually isn’t them; it’s you.

Don’t take the easy way out. Describe what you want to do. Prove it makes sense. Get people behind you.

That way whatever you do has a much better chance of succeeding.

“Failure is not an option.”

This one is often used by a leader who gets frustrated and wants to shut down questions about a debatable decision or a seemingly impossible goal: “Listen, folks, failure is simply not an option,” he says, striking table with fist.

Failure is always a possibility. Just because you say it isn’t doesn’t make it so. So don’t reach for a platitude. Justify your decisions. Answer the hard questions.

If you can’t, maybe your decision isn’t so wise after all.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

Because hey, your wheel might turn out to be a better wheel, which means my wheel wasn’t so great.

And we can’t have that.

“It is what it is.”

Another shutdown statement. “It is what it is” really means, “I’m too lazy to try to make it different, so for gosh sakes stop talking about it.

“It is what it is” is only true if you take the easy way out by letting “it” remain “it.”

“I want your feedback.”

You see and hear a similar line everywhere: surveys, websites, signs, meetings.

Don’t be passive if you truly want feedback. Don’t just “make it easy” for people to provide input. However easy it is, most won’t offer. You have to go get it. You have to be active.

You have to ask.

People who really want feedback take responsibility for getting that feedback. They don’t wait to receive it.

A version of this article first appeared on

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