5 phrases managers should stop using

Managers’ words carry enormous weight with employees – usually more than most managers realize. The wrong words tossed off casually can ruin someone’s day, lower their motivation and morale, or just plain miscommunicate what’s intended. For example, think about how many people get a little panicky when their manager says please come into my office” (with no explanation of why), and how many managers have no idea that that’s happening.

Here are five phrases that managers use all the time but which drive your staff members crazy – and which you should strike from your repertoire today.

1. “Please come into my office.” I used to work with a manager who had a habit of instant-messaging employees with nothing but this line. It continually freaked people out; they thought they had done something wrong and were in for a serious conversation. In at least one case, someone thought they were about to be fired. Instead, try “Would you come by? I have a few quick questions about this report” or even “Would you stop by my office? Nothing’s wrong – just want to touch base with you on the product launch” or anything else that’s harder to read as bad news.

2. “Feel free to run that by me before you send it out.” A lot of employees will hear that as “you can show that to me before it goes out if you’d like my input, but you don’t have to” – which is fine unless you’re like the many managers who use this phrase to mean “please show it to me before you send it out.” If you frame a requirement as a suggestion, you’re likely to end up frustrated when people assume it’s a suggestion and treat it as option. If you definitely want someone to do something, don’t frame it as “you could do X” or “feel free to do Y”; instead, use clearer language like “please do X” or “I’d like you to do Y.”

3. “Just figure out a way to get it done.” There certainly are times when employees 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 you’d expect a reasonable employee to be able to solve on her own, you can use the situation as an opportunity to clarify expectations, such by saying, “This is something that I’d like you to handle yourself, using resources X and Y.”

4. “It’s all important.” If an employee comes to you and asks for input on how she should be prioritizing her work, telling her “it’s all important” is the opposite of helpful. Everything on her plate may very well be important, but by the time you’re being asked to help prioritize, it’s because it can’t all happen at once.

5. “I wish Jane could do this as well as you do.” Putting down another staff member’s work, even in the context of complimenting the person you’re talking to, signals to the employee being complimented that it might be her you’re putting down to someone else one day. You’ll get far more respect from employees – and your compliments will be more appreciated – if you keep positive feedback … positive.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 130 comments… read them below }

  1. Adonday Veeah

    When I first started at Current Company, a supervisor was regularly telling his staff, “Be glad you have a job. There are plenty of people who are losing their jobs in this economy.”

    In talking with him about his “approach,” he told me he was just trying to encourage them to appreciate the company and how well they were treated. In talking to his staff, they were constantly looking over their shoulders wondering when the axe would fall.

    Something I had to learn when I entered management: The most innocent comment can land very differently when coming from someone who has power over you, perceived or otherwise.

    1. Q

      I used to have a manager who’s favorite phrase was “everyone’s replaceable.” It didn’t encourage us to put much effort in.

      1. MashaKasha

        Ughh. First of all, no need to tell that to people. They already know! Second, if boss insists on stating the obvious, of course his team will start wondering why he does that! Why bring it up all of a sudden? Are their jobs in jeopardy? I can’t imagine anyone being encouraged by that!

      2. Merry and Bright

        I worked for someone like that. We were all “replaceable” until we wanted time off and then we were suddenly indispensable.

      3. T

        Our VP says this all the time to his direct reports (who sometimes pass it onto us). This was fine during the recession but not so much now. While the industry our company operates in is still really struggling, our department within the company (IT) is super hot in my city. We’ve had two openings on my team for 3 months and literally haven’t gotten a single candidate to apply because we don’t pay well and don’t have a good local reputation. Telling our staff they can be replaced wouldn’t be my first approach to motivate employees.

    2. Faith

      I think that the “be glad to have a job in this economy” line has been way overused. It’s almost like employers don’t realize that many of their employees actually do have other options that [gasp] may offer better pay/benefits/work-life balance.

      1. MashaKasha

        I think it’s just a super tactless, brainless phrase to use, not even between employers and employees (which gives it a few additional extra-nasty meanings), but in general. I was at a grocery store on a Friday night and the woman in line in front of me had a full cart of stuff and some ID issues and as a result took forever to check out. She then wished the teenage cashier to have a fun weekend. The cashier replied that she’d be working through the weekend and the woman tells her, “Oh! Well! At least you have a job!” and walks off, probably to have a fun weekend. I just wanted to smack her upside the head on that poor girl’s behalf.

        1. Anx

          I have definitely been guilty of this. Since resuming work, I can’t think of a day at work, no matter how annoying, that came close to the misery of a single hour of long-term unemployment. I didn’t get out much, except I still needed to eat, so I’d be palpably jealous of the cashiers and other grocery store workers (one place where I’d actually have to see other people working for money). So many seemed so annoyed to be there, and I was so frustrated that my personality test had been rejected when these hunched over, eye-rolling, complainers were considered. I don’t think I ever said anything to strangers or coworkers*, but I have used the line on some friends when they had issues at work.

          I do think it’s tactless for people to assume that weekends are standard days off, or that days off are ever welcome. In fact, I had to read this twice, because my work days are more fun than my days off, for the most part.

          *although, I have commented to some coworkers that at least they get paid when they’d tell me how unfair it was that I had a plum parking lot pass or didn’t have to go to meetings where I volunteered

      2. Charlotte Collins

        Also, to me it smacks of the same advice some women are given when their SO isn’t right for them – “Just be glad you have a boyfriend/husband.” Way to lower the bar for everyone’s expectations.

        I’ve heard the “We should all just be glad we have jobs” line in a meeting. Since it came from someone who had been removed from a position and basically had a position made up in order to keep employment, the irony was not lost on me…

      3. neverjaunty

        It’s a big sign that they don’t grasp the employer/employee relationship. A job is not a favor a company bestows on you. A job is not something a company maintains out of the goodness of its heart so the employees can pay their bills. And if the employees have a job in ‘this economy’, it’s because the employer needs them there.

        I’m sure these are the same bosses who, in a good economy, whine about how picky potential hires are and how they just can’t find good people at the wages they want to pay.

    3. Ad Astra

      Oof, that’s a great point about perception. I am definitely guilty of sometimes phrasing what I think are positive statements in ways that come off as… not so positive. This sentiment would have gone over better if he’d said something like “Man, I just feel so fortunate to be working for such a [great/innovative/stable/fast-growing/well managed] company in this economy!”

    4. Stephanie

      Yeah, that just makes me feel paranoid, unappreciated, and fungible and would send me straight to the job boards.

  2. Kyrielle

    Oh man #4. I had a manager who loved to do that. Things would get dropped by other team members. I did that once, discovered it made him unhappy, and thereafter provided him with a note that “I cannot complete all the items that are important. I have prioritized them as follows; I am confident that, barring additional tasks I didn’t expect, I can get through #5 by (date). Items below that may not be done by then. Please let me know if we need to adjust the list.”

    Didn’t usually result in the list being adjusted – on rare occasion it did, guess they weren’t all perfectly equally important! – but it saved me a great deal of stress.

    1. Abby

      I lucked out that my manager never says the unhelpful “everything’s important” line, but I’ve found that this strategy of listing out what’s on the docket and what order things should be addressed in really helps ensure and she and I are on the same page. It also gives her a better idea on when she can expect tasks to be finished, so she can confidently tell her superiors how stuff is progressing.

    2. Nom d' Pixel

      My boss’s boss is really bad about that. She acts like everything is the top priority, then gets angry when timelines aren’t met. Fortunately, he is good at setting priorities and communicating what deadlines are based on how we fit into what other departments are doing.

    3. neverjaunty

      Yes, this. It makes it a little tough for a manager to complain that you didn’t do A, B and C when you have written proof that you said “I will do A, then B and C, let me know if you disagree with this”.

      1. sunny-dee

        No it doesn’t! I literally had this conversation with my manager and his manager last week. They wanted me to do two equally important things, but I am responsible for 11 different products. So, I asked — should I do task A, which has 20+ internal stakeholders waiting for it or task B, which is highly visible to customers?

        Their response… “everything is important and everything is urgent, and I just need you to admit that you can’t meet deadlines.”

        Sigh.

        1. neverjaunty

          So your managers are blockheads, but you had a different conversation with them. Kyrielle is talking about sending them an email that says “I am prioritizing task A, which will be completed Friday, then I will start on task B and then move on to C through E. Let me know if you would like me to prioritize these differently.” That is not the same as “Should I do A or B?”.

    4. Kelly O

      That one is the bane of my existence. Seriously, I do not understand how you can be expected to prioritize properly when everything is perceived as urgent. Until it’s not. And then you’re just supposed to know, and figure out a way to get it all done. In the constantly-changing priority order.

      It takes a lot of reading between the lines and juggling to get things done, and then a lot of knee-scraping and contriteness when something does fall through the cracks (even when you WANT to say, “I might have been able to do that properly if not for….” which obviously I don’t say. But I want to so badly sometimes.)

    5. Vicki

      At one job, at a department meeting, an engineer asked: “So, of these 4 things, which is the highest priority?” and the department director had the audacity to say “All 4 of them.”

  3. Sascha

    My director is really bad about #4. My strategy for this is making him choose between two. If I give him too many options or leave it open ended, he always says “everything is priority.”

    1. rek

      How sad is it that your strategy is pretty much what parents use to guide a 2-year-old through the terrible twos? Not “do you want to wear your blue shirt”, which will most like be answered with a resounding “no!” Rather “do you want your blue shirt or your brown shirt?”, clear and limited choices. And never “what shirt do you want to wear?”, which will likely result in eternal delays as *all* options are considered.

      1. Sascha

        Ahh, I didn’t realize that until you said it. There’s a lot of managing up that goes on in my department…

      2. Kelly O

        I have an almost five year old. The similarities are definitely there.

        Those are usually the types who also get upset when they can’t get anyone on the phone during a lunch hour in the ten minutes they think they need to have all these conversations. It’s challenging to come up with a way to tactfully say “well, most people are at lunch right now” – or explain that you might have people taking lunch from 11:00 to past 1:00 depending on the company and time zone, so maybe be a little patient…

        Although I can put the kiddo in time out. So that helps.

    2. Christina

      I had to tell someone recently to use her words when she’s upset, and that throwing things at people was not an acceptable way to voice a concern (I was the target of said projectile). Then I had to remind myself that I do not, in fact, work with children but grown-ass adults (this particular one being twice my age).

  4. Anoning it Up

    Ugh, a combination of 3 and 4 are part of the reason I’m being pushed out of my office and can barely handle the day-to-day any more. Apparently its all important and I can’t just figure out a way to get it done, and actually asking about these things apparently demonstrates that I am weak and incapable.

  5. MMM

    For point 1, well, there are those occasions when the person IS in trouble. When I have to have a tough conversation, I stick my head in the person’s office and asked if they would come have a chat with me. I don’t know if there is a better way. I don’t want to schedule a meeting under false pretenses, and I don’t want to schedule hours ahead of time because they will fret. Sometimes this is made more difficult by shared workspaces, so others hear the invitation to chat. We do try to time difficult conversations as fairly as possible, but it is hard to get it just right. Any suggestions?

    1. Sara The Event Planner

      Even in that situation, I think it would help someone to collect their thoughts if they knew what the conversation was about. Even if I knew I had messed up or that my boss was unhappy with me, a simple email saying “Please come into my office when you have a moment. I’d like to talk about how things went with Project XYZ,” would go a long way in helping me to mentally prepare.

      1. Ad Astra

        I agree that setting a general topic is helpful. If you say “This is about the teapot distribution project,” the employee is likely to have an inkling about whether that’s a good or bad thing. And that gives them a chance to think about the topic and so the relevant facts and details are top of mind — and they’re less likely to feel blindsided.

        1. Charlotte Collins

          Also, it’s unfair since the employee might have a lot of information they could share, but that doesn’t mean they can recall it on short notice.

          I used to have a boss who would just leave a sticky note on your keyboard: “See me. Boss.” With the crazy, scrawled handwriting, it made the note especially ominous.

          1. Charityb

            Now I’m imagining the handwriting. Was it “doctor” bad? “Serial killer manifesto” bad?

            1. Charlotte Collins

              Definitely the second. I’d be more afraid if my manager hadn’t been so incredibly lazy…

        2. K.

          Right. It should never feel like getting called to the principal’s office, where often they won’t say what the issue is ahead of time so that young kids or teens don’t have time to come up with excuses or cover-ups [as well as overall logistics and school’s running differently than offices, of course].

          Unless there’s a reason to think that sort of specific behavior could be a problem [which should be an entirely different and more severe problem in and of itself], transparency and clarity is never a bad thing, even and especially with difficult conversations.

          1. Charityb

            I find that this kind of thing mostly favors the glib over the honest. It’s like lie detector tests; yeah, it nails people who are nervous, but it doesn’t necessarily differentiate well between people who are nervous because they did something wrong or people who are nervous because they’ve been hauled into the boss’s office and think they are about to get fired.

  6. Technical Editor

    I’m surprised at how many managers do this to their employees. At OldJob, I had monthly exchanges with my boss that went something like this:

    Me: “I’m overwhelmed with all of these projects. Can you help me prioritize?”
    Manager: “It’s all important.”
    Me: “I realize that, but what would you like me to work on first.”
    Manager: “Just figure it out!”

    So glad I got out of there.

      1. Technical Editor

        My thoughts exactly. She was completely useless, and, even worse, harmed the business financially and caused me to have a nervous breakdown and quit without a sure thing lined up.

    1. annnnon

      I had a few of these! It was awful.

      In my last job, I at least figured out that the bosses didn’t penalize me for making up my OWN priorities, so I was able to focus on the projects I really cared about, and push down the ones I was less invested in.

  7. louise

    Re: 3. Several years ago my manager was trying to get two of my teammates to stop asking questions about EVERYTHING they did. They needed constant reassurance. Our manager finally told them they needed to figure things out on their own. That day, after she and I left, the server went down. Like, can’t do anything at all in the office (a medical office!) without it. Instead of calling her so she could get an after hours service tech in, they decided it could wait until morning. They defended that by saying they were trying to figure it out and that made the most sense to wait since it wouldn’t bother anyone. They weren’t being sarcastic, they had actually talked it out and decided that was the best response.

    1. Nom d' Pixel

      As a manager, I really have a hard time walking the line between hand holding and saying “just figure it out”. On one hand, I want them to communicate with me, but on the other hand, sometimes they ask the same questions over and over and just don’t want to use their judgement.

        1. alter_ego

          My senior coworker, who is my go-to when I have questions, asks me what I would do if he wasn’t there. Then I either get a “yes, do that”, a “There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d probably do x for y reason”, or “no, definitely not, do z”. But it forces me to at least come up with a solution before talking to him (since now I know he’s going to ask the question) and he can see what my thought process is, and the more often he’s able to tell me”yes, do that” the more confidence I gain in my own abilities.

      1. neverjaunty

        “The last time this came up, you asked me how to do X and we went over the procedure for X. You should use the same procedure.”

        That, and make them write things down.

        1. Ad Astra

          Stuff like this really helps. When you’re new to a position or an organization, you don’t always make the same connections that a seasoned employee would make. It might seem obvious to the manager that the situation at hand is just a variation of a past situation and X still applies, but a newbie isn’t going to have the context for that.

          Or, maybe I’m just exceptionally bad at making connections.

        2. Nom d' Pixel

          There are times when my answer is “what is the first thing you think I will ask?” I try to ask a lot of leading questions rather than provide answers, but when people fall behind schedule, I can’t let them fail or the project fails.

    1. JM in England

      Seconded!

      My past experiences will always make me have negative associations with that phrase…………….

    2. Nom d' Pixel

      Our VP will call and say, “stop by my office when you get a chance” and it can be anything from a promotion to a reprimand, you just never know.

  8. F.

    At Very Large Dysfunctional Corporation, I was admin to a manager who would frequently remind us that, “You’re lucky to have a job!” By that she meant that we should take whatever abuse she dished out and come back saying, “Yes Ma’am, may I have some more?” This resulted in depressed and demoralized employees. When I would ask her to prioritize my very lengthy list of “priority tasks”, she would respond with, “You should know what I want. Figure it out yourself.” as though I could read her mind (which changed at a moment’s notice.) Having spent my childhood being told I was worthless, I didn’t need a manager to continue the abuse.

    1. Ad Astra

      The thing is, most of us aren’t just “lucky” to have a job. We all made a series of decisions that led to the right mix of education, experience, and skills to make us a desirable candidate. Then we competed with other qualified candidates and someone, often the “You’re lucky to have a job!” harpie, decided we were the best person for the job.

      Is there an element of luck to job hunting? Absolutely. And are there plenty of qualified people who’ve done everything right and still don’t have jobs? Definitely. But those of us who do have jobs usually earned them. We weren’t randomly selected by a benevolent billionaire to receive free money. That would be lucky.

      1. Stephanie

        This. Plus I don’t know why these managers act like it’ll be that easy to do a backfill, especially as the economy improves.

        1. Kelly O

          Trust me, I totally understand this one. Particularly in organizations where it seems they’re doing things backward, or not making a secret of outsourcing plans, but yet they want to complain about perceived workloads or hours.

          By the way, if you meet that benevolent billionaire, give him my number. I’ve told my mother several times that I will happily allow myself to be adopted if the inheritance is right. (In jest of course. Mostly.)

      2. Charityb

        It kind of reminds me of the comments that guys like Donald Sterling (former owner of the Clippers basketball team) make. They seem to have this idea that their starting a business and hiring people to work at that business is some kind of charitable initiative or a favor that they do for the people who work for them. They do really see themselves as — literally in Sterling’s case — benevolent billionaires handing out bags of money to the people who work for them (basketball players). They don’t fully get that employment is a mutually-beneficial relationship; the employee needs the job to support themselves and the employer needs the employee’s time, effort, and skill to make money for their business. It’s not “charity” on either of their parts.

    2. A Non

      +1 for not sticking with managers who remind you of childhood abuse. My lifetime tolerance for that kind of behavior has already been used up.

  9. Rebecca

    1, 3, 4, and 5 is my work life. I gave up asking my manager to help me prioritize my unmanageable workload. She just tells me 3 and 4, waves her arms and says “make it so”, no so unlike Captain Picard, and that she told her boss it would get done, so figure it out. I just encountered 1 and 5 this morning. One thing for sure, it’s a morale killer.

  10. grasshopper

    1. “Please come into my office.” makes me terrified. I know that I’m solid, but I’m always convinced that I’m going to get fired or be in some kind of trouble. It is the grown-up equivalent of hearing “would NAME please come to the principal’s office” over the PA system at school.

    1. Allison

      I’m an anxious person in general, but any time my manager reschedules our one-on-one meeting, I freak out. One time, my former manager scheduled a really random one-on-one meeting with me, and I was absolutely terrified! Turns out he just wanted to tell me someone on the team was leaving, but he did at least realize that the out-of-nowhere meeting with no explanation was probably not a good call.

    2. Camellia

      Ours just shows up as an invitation on our calendar titled “Discussion”. Then you look at the other invitees, if any, to try to figure out what’s going on.

      1. BananaPants

        Several years ago, HR scheduled a 15 minute meeting titled “HR Meeting” for just a few days after other similarly-titled “meetings” had actually been layoffs. There was no response from HR when they were asked about the purpose of the meeting. Invited employees got there and assumed that we *probably* weren’t going to be laid off as a group, and it eventually turned out to be handing out certificates for those who had helped with college recruiting.

        We pointed out to the HR manager how stressful it was to get a cryptically-titled and brief meeting invite from her, given recent events. I’m not sure if she got it, but it was VERY unnerving.

        1. Sarahnova

          Hah, yes, I once scheduled a group call for the graduate trainee programme I ran to give them some news about the organisation and let them talk to one of our leaders. We were going through tough financial times then, and I found out that there was a rumour I was going to sack them all on the call. I was flabbergasted, but it did teach me to remember that a) people talk and b) if you don’t explain something, people make up their own explanation.

  11. Ad Astra

    I had a boss who used phrases like “Do you want to do [task]?” and “Feel free to [task that sounded to me like unnecessary work] if you want” to give commands. He was a really nice guy with a lot of relevant knowledge, but he was also a people pleaser with no management experience. I was fairly new to the work force at the time and totally unfamiliar with this (apparently quite common) habit.

    I didn’t realize that when he said to me “Do you want to go out and get video of [event that didn’t sound interesting or important to me]?” he was telling his manager “Oh, I told Ad Astra to go get video of [event that didn’t sound interesting or important to me].” So, when I routinely decided I was too busy to leave my desk for what I thought was an optional task, the Big Boss would be routinely frustrated with me.

    The worst part? This went on for months and I only realized it was happening when I landed in a meeting with HR and narrowly avoided a formal PIP.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For

      My boss is like this now.

      She says, “what do you think about…” when she really means, do it this way. I’m fairly established in my field, so I am used to people wanting my opinion when a question is posed…so needless to say, I stepped in it when I didn’t just say, “Yes Ma’am”

      1. College Career Counselor

        I have run afoul of that as well. I was asked in my capacity as SME, “what do you think about XYZ” and gave my opinion. Absolutely NO CLUE (until told weeks later by someone else) that the person would use this as “evidence” of my not being willing to embrace new ideas. This person was not my direct boss, so it took a lot longer to figure this habit out, and by then the damage had been done.

  12. Maxwell Edison

    The one I hated back at ToxicJob was when my manager would IM me with “U there?” Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. A “hello there” would have been much nicer.

  13. aNoN

    A phrase that gets under my skin when I am being assigned tasks: “It should be pretty easy, so don’t worry”
    If it was easy, *you* would do it…this phrase undermines the level of effort people put into their work and minimizes a person’s role…

    1. fposte

      Huh. I hadn’t thought of that. I use it, and I don’t feel that way; it’s mostly to clarify its impact compared to tasks that I know for sure will take a while. Its ease has nothing to do with whether I’d do it or not–in fact, if it’s easy it’s much more sensible for me to delegate it so I can do more of the key revenue stuff.

      Would it bother you if it was in that kind of context? “It looks like the Fonebone file and the Bunbury documents need to get collated by Friday, but they should be pretty easy. Do you think you could meet that target date?”

      1. OfficePrincess

        I also think it’s helpful because if it turns out to be more difficult it’s a quick flag that maybe something isn’t right and deserves a closer look.

        1. sunny-dee

          That’s usually how I use it, but I try to make it explicit. “This looks like it should take 1 hour / three days / whatever. If it starts taking longer, let me know.”

      2. Ad Astra

        Even changing the wording slightly to “It’s pretty straightforward” would be better, imo. It’s semantics, but nobody likes being told their job is easy, even if it is.

      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        Agreed. I think it’s one of those things where the interpretation is likely to depend on the relationship. If it’s a reasonable, respectful manager and a reasonable, non-adversarial employee, I don’t think it’s going to grate. If either of those two factors is missing, though, I could see how it might.

      4. Anx

        I agree with a lot this, but I do hate that phrase.

        I have found “easy” things to to be very difficult, and “hard” things to be quite easy.

    2. Nom d' Pixel

      We call that phrase the kiss of death. It is a guarantee that something will go very wrong.

    3. LBK

      I’m with fposte – just because something is easy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be delegated to the appropriate person. My VP can run a sales report, sure, but that’s not her job. It’s my job.

  14. AndersonDarling

    The “just figure it out” brought me back to old job. I remember the boss needed a check cut by the next day and I had no idea how to make that happen. I put in the request, called someone in Finance and they said no, they can’t cut it until next week. Told my boss and his response was, “I trust you can make it happen.” Really? You think an admin can get you a check cut right now when you, a VP, can’t do it?
    I came to learn that he would constantly tell me to “figure it out” because he had burned every bridge in the organization and no one would lift a finger to help him.

    1. Allison

      Similar thing happened in my job, I was tasked with a nearly impossible search where they might as well have asked me to find 10 actual unicorns, and I told my boss that I’ll give it my all but it was unlikely I would find 10 people with that background by the end of the day, and he said with a smile “no, you will, I believe in you. you’ll get it done.” And it was like “actually no, there’s a very good chance I won’t, this is an extremely difficult search.” I wasn’t being lazy or negative, I was being realistic and trying to manage his expectations, but he wasn’t having it. I ended up having a complete breakdown and got fired a week later.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        I worked for someone like this, who constantly gave me excessively flattering “pep talks” and then would get angry when I still had to say I couldn’t do something — how dare I “lack confidence” with all of the great pep talks they were giving me!!

        I hate when “being realistic” gets interpreted as “being lazy” or “lacking confidence.”

          1. Electron Wisperer

            On being realistic, “Experience is often mistaken for cynicism by those who don’t have it”, I cannot remember the source, but it encapsulates this one well.

            This often shows up as estimates not being believed, one should not estimate a project by taking the “what do you think is the fastest X can be done?” numbers for all the Xs in the project and then adding them up….. I solved this by giving estimates including best guess standard deviations, I mean really if you ask the SME for an estimate, please believe them (Also, please believe the level of uncertainty they say they have).

            I had a boss who used to do the “what do you think about X” thing, but sometimes (and only sometimes) it should have been read as “Do X”, he actually told me once that I had “Failed to read his mind”.

            He also used to notoriously perpetrate all day weekly meetings, as far as I could tell so that those who were competent could carry the 2/3rds of the staff who favored sitting on facespace instead of actually working (we once null routed facebook at the border router just to see how long before the whining become unendurable, the answer was less then 60 minutes).

            This was a charity.
            I stayed there FAR too long.

        1. Ad Astra

          I’ve had many managers who seem to think pep talks are a good replacement for training.

          Them: You can do this! We know you can. That’s why we hired you.
          Me: OK, but how should I do it?
          Them: You can do this! Time to step up! Great talk.

            1. Electron Wisperer

              Me: Yea, I can do that but we will need to hire in a specialist architect, as well as an acoustics consultant, and I will need some training.
              Manglement: Thats great, we will hire the specialists and get you the training.

              Manglement: We didn’t like what the consultants told us so we fired them, but you can do this.
              Me: …… Ah, not really it is well outside my skill set….
              Them: But you must.
              Me: This is going to end badly and the rework will cost you way more then doing it right the first time.
              Eventual cost of rework: ~£1.5 Million.

          1. So Very Anonymous

            OMG yes. The flashbacks! The number of times I wanted to say “what I need: fewer pep talks, more actual instructions.” I think I may have right before I quit. At that point I was documenting every. single. thing. that I did because I was getting blamed in meetings for being retroactively incompetent. I also got in trouble for “not taking advantage of a consultant as a networking opportunity” after the boss had FIRED the consultant. Silly me! I just needed to be more confident!!!!

            I discovered yesterday that this same boss (who lives/works in a Far Distant State) is actually giving a talk today ON MY CAMPUS maybe three buildings away from mine. I opened a newsletter and bam! there she was. Luckily I’ve had to stay in my building all day. The PTSD/flashbacks have been strong over the last 24 hours.

          2. James M

            …the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true.

  15. Stephanie

    #5: This one is so, so awkward. This happens regularly at my job now. And I’ve heard others senior to me (one guy in particular) complain about the other subordinates (in the middle of our cube farm) within minutes of their departure. It just makes me wonder what they say about me when I’m not there (and makes me double and triple check that I’ve crossed every t and dotted every i).

  16. Mimmy

    Amen to all of this, particularly #s 1, 3, and 4.

    #1 – Just as someone above pointed out, it takes you back to the days of being sent to the principal’s office.

    #3 – Reminds me of a past job where I was struggling to make independent decisions on what information to give callers. Yes, I agree I should’ve been able to figure it out, but being new, I was still trying to get a handle on the breadth of available resources! My manager didn’t quite say “just figure it out”, but she might as well have said it. A better approach would’ve been to ask what would help me or perhaps offer mock 1:1 calls.

    #4 – That one is so common!! It’s especially hard when you’re supporting multiple managers.

  17. LizNYC

    Did you know my manager at OldJob? Because #4 (it’s all important) was her hallmark. I’d ask about priorities, and it would be, “Well, it’s all important, so maybe while you’re typing up X, you could look into Y and Z at the same time.” Last time I checked, I’m not a clone…

  18. AnonyMiss

    #1. My ExBoss did the lawyerly, even scarier format of this. She’d send you either an IM or an email (!!! if it was email, it was just a subject line with a blank body… which is a pet peeve of mine) saying “Please come see me.”

    The “see me” part made it scarier. When you “see” someone, you’re usually not in a great shape (you “see” a doctor or you need to “see” the manager when complaining; but you “visit” your friends and “meet” with your clients), and the short message with no particulars freaks you out… especially that she’d send you 1-2 page emails chewing you out for things like accidentally not printing an internal copy double-sided (“It has come to my attention that you printed the draft report for XYZ single-sided. Please remember that all internal copies are to be double-sided, and only client copies will be printed single-sided. You need to recognize that this is a huge waste of taxpayer money. We are committed to maintaining a green office, and to cutting our cost to the taxpayer. Printing single-sided is a needless waste that must be avoided. If you need additional training on how to set up the printer, please see your Supervising Teapot Assistant Lavinia Plufferton or myself.”)

    Well, of course it came to your attention, I handed you that 3-page report myself. Man, her mannerisms would make me want to crawl up the wall.

    1. fposte

      To me, “See me” is on red ink on a school paper so bad that the teacher needs to talk to me about it personally.

      1. Turtle Candle

        Yes! My association with “See me” is schoolwork that’s beyond bad–often preceding an accusation of cheating or plagiarism.

  19. I'm With Phyllis

    Instead of “please come in to my office,” I’ve noticed a lot of management staff switching to “do you have a moment?” I find this equally as frustrating, as it still tells me nothing about what they want to talk to me about. Am I in trouble? Am I getting a raise? More likely, they want to discuss a certain project … and if I knew what it was I could bring some notes with me that would be helpful to us both!

    I had an old boss who used to use “just get it done” and “it’s all important” together, all the time. Everything was a priority and needed to get done immediately. It was hard on me, sure, but the part that frustrated me the most was that it lowered the quality of my work and raised expenses for the organization. Time to plan and research properly shouldn’t be underestimated. Simply, you get a better product if you’re willing to help your employees prioritize so that they can complete things properly and within budget!

    1. Stephanie

      GAH. Just reading about “Do you have a moment?” makes me twitchy. I totally associate that with being reprimanded.

      1. OfficePrincess

        And really, whether or not I have a moment generally depends on what that moment is for. I always have a moment to evacuate the building if it catches fire, but I may not currently have a moment to come chat about preliminary planning for 6 months down the road if I’m prepping for a conference call that’s in 10 minutes.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          That’s my read on it too — assuming that I’m working and not sitting around eating fudge and playing Dots, whether I have a moment depends on what it’s needed for.

        2. Daisy Steiner

          Lol, I have the same feelings about ‘Are you busy?’. Unless you give me the rough size and urgency of the job, I really don’t know how to answer that question.

          1. PX

            My response to ‘Do you have a minute/Are you busy?’ vagueness tends to be (because I have sane colleagues and boss): ‘Depends, what do you need me for?’

            Luckily in my company most people understand that, and its perfectly fine to say ‘Actually no, I’m busy now – can you come back at X time’ if the request isnt urgent.

    2. Ad Astra

      Our company only recently made IM available to the majority of the office, and lately I’ve gotten a LOT of “Do you have a minute?” IMs from the boss. So far, none of it has been about anything bad, but it never feels good walking down to his office.

      1. Argh!

        I’d rather go to my boss’s office than have her come to mine. The first time she did that, she was angry at me for not replying to her e-mail (our e-mail server was down, as it turned out). Ever since then when I see her I think she’s angry

  20. Splishy

    Corollary to #1: The mysterious, required all hands meeting invite with no subject line or other information.

    At an old job we just had a lay-off by “required meeting” so everyone thought the branch was going to close or something when the meeting invite from Corporate HQ showed up. Our branch manager actually had to send someone around to assure people it wasn’t a mass lay-off to stem the panic (dot-com collapse in 2000/2001). Turns out Corp HQ had a bunch of edicts they wanted to hand down. Why couldn’t they have said that in the invite?

    1. I'm With Phyllis

      Yep, we used to get the “mandatory staff meeting” to announce a lay-off too. So if you saw someone disappear into the boardroom, and then you got one of those emails, you pretty much knew what was happening.

  21. Cucumberzucchini

    I think if you’re a reasonable manager, in a non-toxic environment, who calls people in all the time to discuss non-negative feedback you can get away with saying “Come see me please” or “I need to talk to you about something”.

    Not to say you shouldn’t provide more context, but the places I’ve been where that phrase made me anxious or made my subordinate anxious was in a place that was toxic and people were already on edge.

  22. jmkenrick

    I’ve always had a frustration with higher-ups who refer to the team as ‘family’ or any other sentimentality that dresses up the relationship into something more than it is.

    We’re not a family – and that’s OK. My parents didn’t get to fire me when I misbehaved or slacked off, and I didn’t get to demote my sister when she’s being difficult. You don’t want your business associates to act like family. Just be coworkers, there’s nothing shameful in that.

    1. SL

      Totally agree with this. We’re here to do a job. In exchange, we get a paycheck. The really lucky ones among us might also get a sense of purpose or fulfillment from their work. But we’re not family. I don’t even care for the term “team”.

  23. Argh!

    I once supervised someone who thought she didn’t have to do something if I said “please.” She was from South Carolina, so I would have expected her to understand that nicety. I was dumbfounded.

  24. Kai

    I know I’ve brought this up probably more than once, but when managers phrase something they want me to do as something “we” are doing, it bugs me. It’s fine to give me direction–I’m the employee, you’re the boss!–but don’t act like we’re going to be buddying up on a project when I’m the only one who will be doing the specific tasks.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I use “we.” A lot. Because it feels accurate to me — you might be doing the work, but I’m going to be involved in some way, whether it’s giving input or approving the final or whatever it is. “We” to me also means “the organization” — as in “we — the organization — need to do X.”

      1. Anonymous Educator

        I think that’s different, though. If you say “We are going to be launching a new marketing campaign,” that would definitely be something “we” are doing, even if the employees are doing the bulk of the actual day-to-day work. But it doesn’t make sense to say “We are going to be scanning in images and converting them to vector graphics” if you are the manager who just asks your direct report to do all the scanning and all the converting. That is a very specific task in which your involvement as a manager is pretty much just telling someone else to do the actual task.

        1. CaliforniaDreamer

          This phrasing always makes me think of the morning nurse: “Good morning! How are we feeling today?”

          1. neverjaunty

            Yes, this. It is actually kind of a joke at some places I’ve worked at. “We need to do X, and to be clear, by ‘we’, I mean you.”

  25. rori795

    I work in health care and we have a morning meeting to discuss anything that has happened in the past 24 hours and what we are anticipating in the next 24 hours. One day, right before leaving I opened an e-mail from my boss that said, “You need to see me after morning meeting tomorrow.” That was it. No indication as to why. She had already left for the day, and I was freaking out. I had a huge anxiety attack that night and driving into work the next day, trying to figure out what I could have done wrong, if I would be fired, etc.

    When I went into her office after morning meeting, she ended up inviting me to go to a conference with upper management that another manager had paid for but couldn’t attend. That was what she had wanted to tell me all along. I was so relieved (and excited, because it’s an expense conference that had a lot of perks associated with it, as well as a great opportunity to network). I thanked her kindly for considering me, and told her I would love to go, then asked if next time she could perhaps specify what the meeting was about in advance to avoid causing anxiety. She was super apologetic when she realized how she came off and hasn’t done it again!

  26. HRish Dude

    My first boss used to say “While you’re not doing anything…”

    Nothing like a little demoralization before giving me a task.

  27. BabyAttorney

    I’ve noticed an irritating habit in my office of tearing the face off someone lower on the totem pole because that person caused the manager to get scolded by the big wigs. Extremely poor management, just talk to them about the error, don’t get irrationally aggressive about every non related thing until you get your frustration out.

  28. Stranger than fiction

    This is timely. Just in the past month I’ve gotten 1) from HR: “could you please come to my office” turned out to be something stupid and 2) from the VP: please meet me in the conference room in five minutes” turned out to be a survey they selected some of us to take. Both times I thought I was getting in trouble or laid off. And the second one was emailed to several seemingly random people, including my boss, so it was a very unsettling few minutes til I knew what was going on.

  29. esra

    “Can we chat?” over Skype was the ‘you-are-in-for-some-shit’ code phrase a director of mine used. You’d know someone got one because their shoulders would slump, and they’d trudge to her office, where she’d leave the door open and dress them down. Loudly.

  30. NoYouWon't

    I get all of those occasionally, but my #1 most hated phrase my boss uses is “I’ll get back to you on that.”

    Sounds reasonable, right? Not everyone is going to have an answer ready to go 100% of the time. Now imagine that that’s the only answer your boss gives you to virtually any question, whether it’s how he wants a project done or when you’ll get that raise he told you was coming in two months (five months ago). I rarely even bother to ask questions anymore; I always get the same useless lying non-answer, if I get any response at all.

  31. _ism_

    I’ve heard it all before, many many times each!

    1. “Please come into my office.”

    I can ask “what is this regarding?” and she’ll respond one of two ways: “No big deal, it’ll only take a minute.” It turns out to be important and a two hour conversation and I didn’t even bring a notebook. Or she’ll say “It’s about that one thing from last week I asked you about on that one email.” (Which could refer to ANY NUMBER OF THINGS and if I press her for specifics, she gets frustrated and sits me down for a lecture about how bad my memory is and how I’m not being proactive, and forgets whatever it is she wanted to meet about in the first place)

    2. “Feel free to run that by me before you send it out.”

    So I proceed one of two ways. I run it by her before I send it out. She doesn’t see my email or deletes it or loses it or something. She asks me why I haven’t sent it to her. I tell her I sent it already, and then she chides me for not drawing her attention to it. I have to page her every time I send an email basically to let her know that it was done.

    Or, she asks me why I haven’t sent it out to everyone already and they’ve been waiting on it all this time and then sits me down for a two hour lecture about prioritizing and how managers depend on my timely reports.

    The other situation is I take her at her word and don’t run it by her, know it’s fine, and send it out anyway. She will magically see my email right away and call me in for a two hour sit-down lecture about how I really need to get her approval before I just start sending things to important people without her permission or review. Or she’ll ask me what the hell I just sent out, having no recollection it’s something she asked me to do in a very specific way that I spent good time preparing only to be told it’s not what she wanted after all.

    3. “Just figure out a way to get it done.”

    Situation A: I figure out a way to get it done. I do it. I send it. She does not notice or acknowledge or even look at it. Months later I get in trouble for it being wrong.

    Situation B: I figure out a way to get it done. I work it up, show it to her to get her understanding and approval. She hates it. She says I am overthinking it and she’s tired of having to discuss everything in such depth. She gives the task to someone else or says “it’s fine, I’ll just stay late and do it myself.”

    Situation C: I figure out a way to get it done, but I step back and question whether I understood her goals. I communicate my understanding and the end result and ask her for confirmation that I understand the task specifically and completely. She throws up her hands and calls me into her office saying I need to be more autonomous.

    Situation D: I have no idea what I’m doing and don’t have the info/resources to figure it out on my own. I ask her questions or for help or guidance or the names of people in the company who do know where to find the information we need. She sits me down for a two hour lecture on how I should be more autonomous and should know everything by know.

    4. “It’s all important!”

    OK. So it’s all iimportant. I’m going to prioritize based on how early the request/task was made. No? I was supposed to know task A was less important than task B that came in later? Ooops. Cue two hour lecture about prioritizing and being on the ball.

    OK… so it’s not all equally important. I use my good judgment and experience to know which thing is probably more important. I am often wrong. Cue two hour lecture about how I’ve been here long enough to be able to figure this out on my own.

    OK… so next time I question my judgment and default to asking my boss which thing is more important this time, as opposed to last time when I made an educated guess and was wrong. Cue two hour lecture about how I waste her time with all my question and I should know this by now.

    OK…finally all prioritize are clarified and I know what I need to finish first, and when. I spend time on them. I turn them in. She doesn’t look at any of it for weeks and then calls me in to ask why I haven’t been working on anything. I bring her back to my desk to show her all my work and everything I’ve accomplished and that whicih is in progress and I fill her in on how I’ve been prioritizing my time based on the clarifications I got from her. Cue FOUR HOUR LECTURE about how I spent too much time on things and I make everything too complicated by asking for so many priorities and answers to questions.

    5. “I wish Jane could do this as well as you do.”

    No, I don’t hear this at all… she doesn’t come out and say it, but what I hear is “I wish you could do this as well as I used to, before I got too busy and had to hire an assistant. If you could do as well as I could, we wouldn’t be having so many two hour lectures.”

  32. Argh!

    As a manager I’m quite proud of not saying the following things that have come to mind:

    What are you, 14? Grow up!

    Could you be any lazier?

    Yes, this task involves something resembling actual work.

    I can’t believe you just said that!

    Although I have said:
    Put away your phone. This is a meeting. Using your phone during a meeting is rude.
    Are you refusing to comply with a legal and reasonable work-related request made by your supervisor?
    Put away the knife. This workplace prohibits knives with blades longer than x inches.
    Don’t put your feet up on your desk and make personal calls. This is an office. I expect you to do your job and to exhibit professional demeanor.
    Would you say that to [male supervisor in the office next door]? Answer: no. Then don’t say it to me.

    …. all of these instances were with people over the age of 35!!!!

  33. Jake A

    I think the trouble with always making it clear that a request for some to come to the office is nothing bad, is that it’s then totally obvious when it IS about something bad. A bit like the way hospitals won’t tell you how someone is (even if they’re fine), because if they did, not telling you how someone is would be code for them not being fine.

    With emailed/private requests, I guess that doesn’t apply so much, but I definitely think it applies for publicly made requests for a ‘brief word’.

Comments are closed.