Phrases that sabotage your career

Vague and tentative phrases convey weakness and undermine your business dealings. Are you using any or all of these?


When you say thoughtless things in meetings, you are sabotaging yourself, the team, and/or your company. The wrong word can cost you an account, a job, a friend, a partner.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But in the words of Mark Twain, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

There is no question that our words and speaking style are important; they reflect who we are. Therefore, if you want to be perceived as a smart, valued employee or workplace leader, a great way to start is by deliberately choosing words and phrases that empower yourself and others.

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As an executive recruiter for the past 17 years, I have had the good fortune to speak with hundreds of executives and senior leaders, whether they are seeking a new position or looking to hire people for their team. Certain phrases consistently come up that make me ponder the underlying issues: “I’ve been telling my team that we need X and no one’s doing it,” or, “I’m looking to hire people who can outperform my current sales manager.”

Often, I find that their words and tone reveal insecurities about themselves and negative thinking regarding their co-workers and company.

Never before have we been able to communicate faster than a speeding bullet and more powerfully than a locomotive. People must be cutting-edge, competitive, and efficient. Professionals who are careless with words will be replaced by those who convey a more positive attitude, collaborative spirit, proactive behavior, and professional demeanor—and it does not matter who you are and how much money you have (e.g., Donald Sterling).

Here are some speaking styles to avoid:

The valley girl: “Like, you know…”

As soon someone says this, I no longer can listen to the rest of the conversation. I’m betting many others feel exactly the same way. I often respond with, “Like, no, I don’t know…”

Pay attention to this phrase; if you’re in the habit of saying it, stop. It makes you sound foolish and childlike. I recommend dropping the word “like” from your office discourse and leaving it on Facebook.

The too cool for school: “That’s not my job…”

Have you ever heard this from a colleague? How does it make you feel?

Regardless of how inopportune or unsuitable a request may be, it is probably important to the other person or he/she would not have asked. If you are not perceived as a contributing member of the team and come off as an indifferent, removed, and self-centered employee, your chances of advancing in your career are slim to none.

The whiner: “It’s not fair”

I said this to my mom on several occasions growing up—and it never worked.

“Don got the last two sales leads, and it’s not fair.”

“Well,” said the client, “perhaps you should have been in the office when those leads came in.”

Inequalities happen on the job and in the real world every day. My client told me that he has a problem with whiners. He finds that the people who are closing deals and coming up with innovative ideas usually don’t complain.

Of course, he concedes that “injustices do happen,” but he would prefer an intelligent fact-building case over whining. I asked him what happened to the whiner. “After a time, I got tired of the complaints and the lack of results and had to let her go.”

The unsure: “I think…”

Recently I got a call from a salesperson who started off the conversation with, “I think my services might be a good fit for your company.”

“Really?” I replied. “You mean you don’t know? Then why did you call me?”

If you can’t speak with conviction when you’re talking to potential clients, then why would they ever want to buy your goods and/or services? I’ve never walked in a store where the salesperson says, “I think we might be able to help you.”

There is a slight difference in saying, “I think” and “I believe” or even asking a question, “Hi, how are you and how can I help you?” The words you choose have a profound effect on how your message is received.” The words “think” and “might” run the risk of you sounding unsure or insecure. Conversely, “I believe” conveys passion and is more assertive.

The wimp: “I’ll try”

Imagine that you ask your friend to drive you to an important appointment and she replies, “OK, I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll get you there safely.”

When you tell a colleague and/or your boss that “you’ll try,” you don’t leave them feeling confident about your abilities to get the job done. It’s a little change—”I will” from “I’ll try”—but it speaks volumes about you and your can-do attitude.

The bully: “He’s a jerk,” or “She’s lazy,” or “I hate this company”

There are few things worse than a name caller, and I can guarantee no faster way to get to the unemployment line. You also sound like a juvenile schoolyard bully. Avoid making unkind, judgmental statements that inevitably will reflect poorly on you.

The stick in the mud: “But we’ve always done it that way…”

This saying reminds me of people who say, “When I was a kid, we didn’t have cell phones, and birds tweeted, not people.” Again, effective leaders value innovation, creative thinking, and problem solving. So the person who says this in a meeting sounds closed-minded and inflexible.

Perhaps before you react negatively to a new concept, take a moment to think, and then say, “You know, I’d love to hear about it when you have more facts and you’ve fleshed out the idea.”

The naysayer: “That’s impossible” or “There’s nothing I can do”

Really? Are you sure you’ve considered every single possible solution and the list is now exhausted? Certainly the Apollo 13 astronauts didn’t have the luxury of saying, “This is impossible.” They had to come up with a solution; their survival depended on it.

So when you make a negative statement, your words convey a pessimistic, passive, even hopeless outlook.

The fortune teller: “You should have…” or “You could have…”

You wouldn’t be thrilled if someone said, “You should have told me about this sooner,” or “You could have tried a little harder.” These fault-finding words inflict feelings of blame and finger-pointing, which undermine a collaborative team-building environment and rarely win the hearts and minds of colleagues and leaders.

The discounter: “I may be wrong, but…” or “This may be a silly idea, but…”

I feel sorry for people who diminish the impact of their ideas, opinions, and actions. When you say these things in a meeting, you are revealing how little value you place on yourself and your message.

“Well, I know you’re going to disagree, but I think we should be charging more to our clients.”

Wow, this guy has got to be kidding, right? I would have preferred that my CFO said, “Given that our manufacturing costs have gone up 20 percent in the last 18 months, we will need to pass some costs on to our clients.”

The hedge: “Don’t you think?” or “OK?”

These phrases are commonly known as hedging—seeking validation through the use of overly cautious or noncommittal words. If you truly are seeking approval or looking for validation, these phrases may well apply. However, if your goal is to communicate a confident commanding message and persuade people to see it your way, don’t hedge. Make your statement or recommendation with certainty.

Imagine your lawyer saying: “This is a good company to merge with, don’t you think? I’ll write up the papers, if that’s OK with you.” Instead, you’d want to hear something like, “This merger is astute and will triple a return on investments. With your approval, I’ll write up the legal documents needed for next steps.”

The superior: “I don’t have time for this right now” or “I’m too busy”

Even if these statements are true, no one wants to feel less important than something or someone else. When I answer the phone, the caller usually asks me whether this is a good time to speak. Usually I’m busy, but unless I’m late for a meeting or missing a deadline, I invariably answer, “I’m not too busy for you.” Like many people in business, I want to foster positive relations and expand my reputation. Let’s face it, everyone is busy.

Most of these phases are common, and some are difficult to eliminate from our vocabulary, but if we pay attention to our words and how we deliver them, we can build a better career, close more deals, make more money, and improve our relationships at home and at work.

Our words reflect who we are; they can encumber our career as well as help us achieve greatness. Here is a tip to build self-awareness and eradicate those troublesome phrases from your conversations:

Record yourself

When you’re on the phone in a business setting, record your side of the conversation and then listen to the recording afterward. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a trusted colleague listen with you and offer their opinion. Listen for phrases on this list or any other words or phrases that may be perceived as limiting or negative.

When I started recruiting, I used a notepad (I still do) with two things on the top-the “do’s” and “don’ts.” I would write down the sayings that worked and the ones I will never use again. I keep that list to this day.

Erika Weinstein is CEO and founder of eTeam Executive Search. A version of this article first appeared on iMediaConnection.

This article first ran on Ragan.com in June 2014.

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