how to speak “boss” and decode what your manager really means

Most managers think they’re being perfectly clear when they talk to employees – even though employees are sometimes left unsure about what message is being delivered.
Here are eight common things that bosses say that can cause confusion, and how to interpret each of them.

1. “Are you busy?” If your boss drops by your office and asks if you’re busy, you might worry that saying “no” will sound like you’re slacking off but saying “yes” would be a rude brush-off. But most managers who ask this question just mean, “Can I interrupt you or is this a terrible time?” Or in some cases, it’s code for “I’m going to interrupt you, but I’m softening it by going through the motions of asking first.” A good response is simply “What’s up?”

2. “We all need to pitch in right now.” This is a polite way of telling you that your workload is going to increase or you’re going to be asked to shoulder more responsibility than you normally do. You might hear this during a crunch time or when your department is short-staffed. And you’ll sometimes hear it if your boss senses that you’re not too happy about having to take on more work or put in more hours.

3. “You need to take more ownership.” Taking more ownership for your work means that you’re not just executing a series of activities that your boss assigns you, but instead you’re thinking of yourself as truly responsible for the success of your area. When you’re taking ownership, you’re the one who’s driving your work forward, seeking out any missing information that you need to do the work well, spotting potential problems before they arise and devising solutions to them, and drawing lessons to improve in the future – in other words, taking the same sort of responsibility for your results as your manager probably takes with her own work.

4. “You have an attitude problem.” If you hear this from your boss, it’s serious! It means that you’re regularly grumpy or frustrated, seem annoyed at having to do your job, resist hearing feedback about your work, or otherwise are the opposite of a cheerful, easy-to-work-with colleague. You might think that if your work is good, that’s all that should matter, but people can and do get fired for attitude problems so if you’re getting this feedback, take it as a serious flag to reset your demeanor.

5. “Tell me briefly…” If you hear your boss ask for something “briefly,” that word isn’t there by accident. It’s a deliberate attempt to signal that you should be concise in your answer. You might hear this if you tend to be long-winded and your boss is nudging you to keep things shorter. Or your boss might know that there’s lots of background and context that you could supply, and she’s telling you that she’s really just looking for the upshot. If you hear “briefly,” take it to heart.

6. “I just need you to get it done.” Sometimes this means “I hear you that there are lots of challenges to this, but you need to do it anyway.” Other times it means “I don’t want to be involved in figuring this out; I want you to handle this without involving me.”

7. “I want you to bring more of a sense of urgency to this.” Translation: You’re working too slowly. It might mean that your boss feels like she has to nudge you to move the project along or that you don’t seem invested in how quickly it get completed. It definitely means that she wants you picking up the pace, probably significantly.

8. “You should think about whether this is really the job you want.” If you hear this from your boss, you’re giving the impression that you don’t really want to be in your job. It could be an attitude problem (see #4 above), or you might seem chronically unhappy or checked out, or you might not be performing very well and your boss is nudging you to consider whether the role is the right fit for you. It’s worth giving the question genuine consideration in private, but meanwhile be sure to take seriously the fact that your boss is raising it. Good managers don’t ask this question unless they have pretty deep concerns about how well you’re working out in the job. (Bad managers will sometimes ask it as a pressure tactic, in which case your best bet is usually to assure your boss that you do indeed want the job, while working on an exit plan.)


I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 116 comments… read them below }

  1. Sharon*

    Okay, so how do you handle “I just need you to get it done” when what is being asked is something physically impossible without bending the laws of physics? For example, getting a project that requires 6 months of work done in two weeks?

    1. Jamie*

      Then schedule a meeting with your boss where you go over your current workload and have a discussion about priorities. If there is more work than an effective person can reasonably get done in the allotted time then your boss needs to know this so work can be redistributed, deadlines, changed, projects delayed for a short time, whatever.

      1. Sharon*

        Well, obviously. That’s the first thing I do. I might be cynical, but usually when I hear those words from a boss it’s after I’ve attempted to do what you’re describing. Basically they don’t want to hear it. (I know, I’m describing a bad boss. But they’re out there.)

          1. Jamie*

            Cross posted :) I just said that below…there is nothing obvious about people taking that step because so many just don’t do it.

        1. Jenbug*

          You’re not alone. I was in a department of four people and our workload tripled in less than a year and no one in management cared that we literally could not keep up with what was expected of us despite numerous meetings with our direct supervisor and people above her. The VP told us that we were approved to “work as much OT as we wanted”.

          When two of us left, they had to replace us with four people so I think they maybe started to figure it out but it was too late.

        2. MashaKasha*

          Agree. Also, IME, it’s never “I just need you to get it done”. It’s “I just need you to get it done because A, B, and C in upper management have just told me they just need *me* to get it done”. IOW whenever I hear that from my manager, it’s because someone higher up has already lit a fire under him, and he’s no longer listening to reason.

          I once resolved that problem by pulling an all-nighter. I don’t recommend this to anyone, myself included. Still missed the ridiculous deadline, btw.

      2. Mockingjay*

        I just did this! Scheduled a meeting with the boss over workload.

        Here at New Job, our team has been getting a lot of small requests for assistance, for things that aren’t quite in our area of responsibility and skill set. I’ve been discussing some of these requests with my Team Lead, and we agreed they are adding up. We requested a meeting with our manager. I threw together some slides describing our workload and our proposed solutions: hire someone with X skill set, or reassess the team’s duties to ensure our work tasks are mapped to our skills and experience. (Currently, tasks are assigned as they come in, and we often trade assignments afterwards.)

        After our presentation, Manager countered that there will be no additional slots this year (budget already set), so we’ll have to handle these tasks. He will get us some training for the skill set, so I’m happy about that.

        We didn’t get the solution we wanted, but we did get a solution…Get it done! At least for this year. In the meantime, Team Lead and I will continue to track metrics: number of oddball requests we get, the hours each takes to resolve, and how often we have to adjust other tasks to squeeze in the request. Hopefully we can make a case for next year.

        Manager did thank us for proposing solutions in addition to the problem statement. He encouraged to please, please do more of that in the future. It was a good conversation.

        1. sstabeler*

          to be fair, I think the manager was more saying that HIS hands were tied about sorting it out this year- he hasn’t got the budget for hiring someone new- so you need to make do for this year. I’d have pressed him a little bit (“in that case, could you ask for an increase in our budget next year to allow us the additional employee(s)?”) personally, but I can see why he might literally not be able to do much this year.

          1. Mockingjay*

            Funding this year is a factor, although there is a little cushion built into the contract.

            The program was small for a long time, and everyone just pitched in wherever. It has doubled in the last year (I joined a few months ago), and we team members are seeing a real need to clarify roles and skill sets to properly execute the increased load. Our program manager also has a couple of other projects to oversee, so he doesn’t see the daily workload, which is why we’ve started collecting hard numbers to support our case. It might be that this is a temporary surge, or work could keep expanding. We’re also getting new web services in 3 months, to replace a hodge-podge of home-grown servers and share drives, which should help.

            It will be interesting to see what data we come up with. I’ll post an update in 6 months!

    2. BRR*

      All of Jamie’s advice is great. I’ve also tried to figure out if one part of the project will tide over my manager’s immediate needs while I finish the rest.

      1. Jamie*

        I’ve given this advice so often irl I wish I had a verbal macro. I will never understand why people would rather get flack for being behind on things than have a conversation which puts it in the bosses lap and makes it her problem.

        It’s not complaining…it’s working together to get stuff done with the resources available and time is a resource. Complaining is when you go on about how your workload is untenable to everyone except those who can actually help resolve the issue.

        1. BRR*

          Because it’s my manager who is more or less responsible for adding to my already heavy workload my first response is almost always clarifying priority. I was under a lot of stress due to self-imposed deadlines until I learned to respond that way.

    3. a big fish in a small pond*

      I understand the angst (truly). As a boss, my perspective is that it is all about resources – I’d expect the employee to find and use whatever resources are necessary (coworkers, outsourcing, temp workers, overtime, vendor support, whatever – just get it done.).

      I’d also look into why a 6 month project/work came up with such a short deadline – was there a bottleneck in the process? did the client or vendor put off an approval or make late changes? does it really have to be done in two weeks – can something be negotiated? what are the consequences of not completing it in that timeframe? did sales promise an unreasonable deadline and set you up for failure? is your boss trying to create urgency on a stalled project?

      1. babblemouth*

        “I’d expect the employee to find and use whatever resources are necessary (coworkers, outsourcing, temp workers, overtime, vendor support, whatever – just get it done.)”

        I’ve once worked on a project where I was told to find the right people, but given no authority to “draft” them, or budget to hire freelancers – essentially, I had to lobby people for their time, while they were working on other projects.

        How do you signal to your employees when they have the latitude to just “draft” people in the project? How do employees approach you about extra budget to hire freelancers?

        1. Zona the Great*

          I’m finishing up an MPA degree and I recently read an article with an interesting line that helped me feel better about a very terrible management experience I had where I was giving no resources and no authority and was expected to move mountains. “Responsibility without authority will lead to rapid and exhaustive burn-out often leading to greater than average recovery time”.

          It makes perfect sense. Now I make sure they’ve brought the Mountain to Mohammed, as they say.

        2. Jamie*

          This is probably bad advice but when I was told to just get something done and the boss didn’t want involvement I saw it getting permission to arrange the resources I felt were needed. Going to department heads to arrange for people, calling temp agencies, contractors, purchasing stuff, whatever. And I did this from jump, long before I had the authority to do it under my own budget or whatever…because I assumed that’s what it meant…that I had permission to make those calls and if questioned by management I’d say they could check with my boss.

          It would be funny if my view was way off and I started my career just assuming all kinds of authority based on a misunderstanding!

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            That was my experience as well. I was told to get things done, so I collaborated with other teams and requested scarce resources, figuring I could appeal to the authority of my boss if challenged. I was never challenged. After learning the ropes, I found that this was the nature of that job. My boss’s boss promoted problem solvers that would work together without oversight, and steamrolled people who put up walls. He would also easily step in and clarify priorities and goals if two teams had to mediate shared use of scarce resources.

            I actually really enjoy working that way.

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                I was so scared when I first started working there that I would be challenged that I rehearsed what I would say to various people. Now, I have so much confidence that I don’t even worry about it. I operate in good faith. If I get challenged, we can use that as a starting point to have a conversation.

                It’s good to see other people have the same experience!

        3. hbc*

          I think you have to take a short time to draft a plan and say, “It’ll take me X temps and Y experienced people from Z department to get this done. Should I talk to Dept. Head and Temp Service and start getting this done?”

          If you’re the manager, I think you just have to be clear. “This is all hands on deck, steal whatever people you need and let me know if anyone gives you resistance.” As a manager, you can’t just rely on your employees to intuit that they get to tell a peer (or superior) what to do.

          1. sstabeler*

            particularly in the case of superiors- it’s not really reasonable to expect employees to risk beign disciplined to complete a project,

    4. James*

      In the past, I’ve taken an afternoon/evening and drafted a technical memorandum outlining the whole process, and sent it to the boss. That moves the conversation out of the realm of semi-casual direction to Official Orders, and provides an outline of my thought process and reasoning so that they can show specifically where they differ from me. Sometimes that’s resulted in the boss saying “Huh, never considered that”, sometimes it’s resulted in the boss saying “Here’s where you screwed up”, and at least once it’s resulted in the manager no longer speaking to me (matrix organization structures suck), but at the very least the boss has to take it seriously at that point and not just say “Get it done”.

      This works best in the construction/environmental field, where Requests for Information are standard documents. In something like manufacturing or insurance, I’m not sure it’d work as well.

  2. LSP*

    Thanks for this article, because I think many bosses too often speak in cryptic messaging. Of course, I swear some do it because they just have no communication skills and/or they don’t really know what they want. By speaking in this “business speak” constantly, they can avoid being declarative about anything, thus avoiding responsibility if things go wrong. I am sure this is not true in most cases, but I have had some experience with a project lead lacking any ability to clearly communicate anything, meet his own deadlines, and answer questions that are simply asking for his opinion and guidance. Don’t tell me to “take ownership” of something when you know I need guidance in terms of a place to start, have directly asked for it, and have been repeatedly ignored, or when I have decided to just go ahead without guidance only to be told I did it entirely wrong. Argh!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Sometimes, though, “take ownership” legitimately means “your job is to manage this stuff without needing guidance on where to start.” That’s not reasonable when someone is new in the job, but sometimes it’s reasonable when the person is supposed to be more experienced.

      1. LSP*

        I totally get that, but I’m talking specifically about someone having a very particular idea of what he wants in mind, but not clearly explaining that until hours of work already go into something.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, that’s just bad management. (Well, I do think sometimes that happens to even the best of managers — sometimes the process of getting something concrete is what makes it clear what will and won’t work — but if it’s a regular thing, that’s bad management.)

          1. sunny-dee*

            I had a terrible, terrible director once who said my little team was supposed to “take ownership” of a particular initiative. So we talked and came up with 2-3 proposals (we were all really experienced in this field, my manager not at all, and these were pretty realistic proposals). My manager hated all of them and said we were going outside what he wanted, so I said great. Could he provide an example or some guidance on what he wanted so that we could be more in line with his expectations? And he started huffing and sighing and said that he had told us to take ownership so we should be able to figure it out ourselves without him holding our hands.

            1. JM in England*

              This manager has striking similarities to a high-maintenance woman I dated briefly many years ago. Whenever I asked her what it was that I was doing wrong or what she wanted done differently, she said “You just have to KNOW!!!!!” *sigh*

                1. AnonAnalyst*

                  At my current job, apparently yes! I got feedback at one point that I needed to do a better job taking peripheral factors into consideration when evaluating the urgency of client requests. We had one high-maintenance client who was constantly requesting additional work beyond the scope of our original project, and I usually just approved those requests and passed them along to the appropriate people to take care of them. However, at one point it seemed like the amount of time our team was dedicated to this particular project was out of control, and I sent along one of the requests to my manager outlining the resource drain this project was becoming on our side and asking if we should approve this request or if it was time to start pushing back.

                  A few weeks later, my manager pulled me into a meeting to express concerns that I was not adequately considering the whole client relationship because she was currently in talks with said client about another project that she was hoping our firm would get. I am not sure how I was supposed to know about this potential additional project since a) I was not involved in any of these conversations, b) my manager never mentioned it to me, and c) the client never mentioned it to me, but evidently I was wrong for not just knowing somehow. (Not that I’m still annoyed or anything!)

          2. a big fish in a small pond*

            I try to be clear with employees and believe that I am, but still miss the mark sometimes. I haven’t found a good way (that doesn’t sound condescending) to ask the employee to repeat what is being asked – e.g. Communication 101 what is it that you heard?.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              There’s a piece in my book for managers about this! I’m copying it here:

              Time and time again, we see managers who think they have been crystal clear about their expectations shocked to discover that their staff members have heard something very different. We’re often reminded of the children’s game of telephone, where a whispered message gets passed from person to person and comes out humorously different at the end than at the beginning.

              The best way to prevent “telephone syndrome” and to be sure your staff member understands the project the way you do is simple: ask. That is, find a way to get your staff to repeat back to you what they’ve taken their assignment to be. In simple cases, the repeat-back might be verbal. Before ending a discussion about an assignment, you might simply say, “So, just to make sure we’re on the same page – can you tell me what you’re taking away from this?” When an assignment is more complicated or will take more than a day or two to complete, you might ask the staff member to send you a quick e-mail summarizing the assignment, including expected outcomes and next steps. This might feel awkward at first, but you can even blame your own fallibility by saying something like, “I know I’m not always as clear as I think I am, so just to make sure there’s nothing lost in translation, can you take five minutes to capture what we’ve agreed to here and email it back to me, so we both have down what we’ve agreed to?” Almost invariably, in looking back over the email, you’ll find one or two details where you and the staff member weren’t on the same page, so you’ll now have an opportunity to clarify.

              1. hermit crab*

                Oh, I love this! I’m already thinking of things that could have gone more smoothly if I’d used this approach.

          3. LSP*

            Oh, it’s a very regular thing. I dread being more than peripherally involved in his projects any more.

          4. Kimberly Samuelson*

            I have a name for this:

            “I don’t know what I want. I only know what I don’t want.”

            My boss does this at an atrocious level.

            1. Rookie Biz Chick*

              As a generally technical person, I have this syndrome when it comes to creative projects – marketing brochures, notecards, newsletter and web layouts. I’m so not creative, and it’s sometimes tough for me to get that starting point established for the creative team, other than just offering several examples of what is visually appealing to me. We end up working through it, and recently have some awesome products to show for it, but I can’t help but feel like a time-waster because I literally don’t know how to start productively.

              For a technical project, however, like James said above, just taking a couple of quiet hours to think comprehensively about the project, type out a technical memo with the project basis, scope, outline, schedule, budget as a starting point gives a clear place from which to refine and clarify with team folks.

        2. Blue_eyes*

          This is one of the best things about my boss. She will either explain exactly how she wants something done (and let me ask clarifying questions), or she will say she doesn’t care, and then she actually doesn’t care how it is done! (As long as it’s done in a reasonable manner obviously).

      2. SRB*

        Yeah, “needs to take more ownership” was one of my “problems” on my 90 day review at my first job ever out of college. Not …exactly when to expect that. I still cringe when I hear it, though I recognize that most of the time it’s not in the same context I heard it that first time.

        Because, to my then-boss, examples of not taking ownership included: asking what the deadline was for a task, NOT asking what the deadline was for a task, not submitting things days before the stated deadline when there was one, asking how to prioritize impossible timeline tasks A through Q, asking literally any questions whatsoever, and not being able to read minds.

        Funny enough, as soon as I wasn’t working for that individual, all of my subsequent reviews have been “shows initiative”, “takes ownership”…

        1. sunny-dee*

          I think with bad bosses, “take ownership” is synonymous with “read my mind and leave me alone.”

          1. SRB*

            Indeed. And back then, I was too new to the working world to know that I had a bad manager. I’ve got some great managers now to model, but to this day I’m still trying to internalize “Good managers can say ‘take ownership’ and mean exactly what Alison says!” Because I’ve started managing people and have wanted to tell someone that multiple times… but felt so caught up on my toxic old definition of “take ownership” and didn’t want to be that person, so didn’t give feedback for too long. I’ve since decided, I don’t tell someone to “take ownership”, but instead state out explicitly everything that phrase implies, even if it takes more of my words and my time to do so.

  3. Leatherwings*

    If anyone has any additional resources on taking ownership of projects, I would love that. I’m not currently managing anyone, but I have in the past and had difficulty setting people up for success on this. I’m also in a stage at my new job where I’d like to start taking ownership of projects but I’m struggling to make that jump.

    1. LSP*

      I have a project lead (not the one I rant about above) who had said many times leading up to my annual review this year that she wants to be able to step back on many pieces of our projects. I attempted to step up a few times to “take ownership” only to find that she really hadn’t left space for me to do that. She’s a great manager, but during my review I took the opportunity to broach the subject, and let her know that I’m happy to take the lead more, but that I need more space to be able to do that. She agreed, and promised to check herself if she found herself correcting me in places where maybe our strategies differed but the outcome was the same.

      TLDR: Give your people room to make projects their own, while letting them know you are there to support them as needed.

  4. Jamie*

    For me sense of urgency can mean pace, but it can also mean I have concerns that they don’t get how critical something is or a feel for what emergencies should kick them into high gear.

    The best descriptor of this I’ve ever heard was from an old coworker about another who had a very laid back approach to work: “He wouldn’t jump if he were stung by a bee.”

    About to miss a deadline which will cause huge problems with a customer being met with the same attitude of the copier being out of paper is an issue in jobs where sometimes you’ve just got to MOVE.

    Had this as I was training my replacement at my last job – guy just didn’t get the critical nature of some aspects of a project and after the boss was at his wits end it was dropped back in my lap.

    I’m sure those people are healthier and happier, but they have no business being in charge of anything where you need to triage mission critical projects and emergencies.

    Interestingly enough this is one of those things where I’ve never seen anyone make a real change. They can amp it up for a while, but I haven’t seen it stick. Maybe because, unlike some cases of attitude. it seems to be more an inherent personality/temperament trait than due to external factors.

      1. esra*

        I worked at one of these. Management was completely addicted to things being on fire. You could never trust their statements of urgency, because something might legitimately be due and another would just wallow on their desks and there was no way to tell which was which.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I’ve known people like this:

          Project 1: “This isn’t an emergency–just whenever you get to it.” (2 hours later) “Are you done with Project 1 yet? I need it omgrightnow!”

          Project 2: “I need this omgrightnow” Project languishes on their desk for the next month.

          1. esra*

            The absolute worst director I worked for with this (seriously, worst. 1.4 star rating on Glassdoor bad), asked me if we could design a typeface from scratch for one of our clients. I said, technically yes, we could, with enough time and money. But that we were also dangerously overloaded as it was and they would basically have to hire a temp to cover the day-to-day stuff for a couple weeks so I could get going on it or we hire a type pro to make one. She says, okay, sounds great, not urgent, let’s talk about it again next week.

            Meeting the very next week: So, do you have the drafts of the typeface ready for review?

            Honestly, she was so awful.

          2. Jenbug*

            My very first boss in my very first post-college professional job was like this. From the time I got in until like lunch time, he would keep handing me things and telling me they were my “#1 priority” and then at the end of the day, he would want to know why I didn’t get done the first thing he gave me. Well, because you gave me six other things after that and told me that *they* were my priority and there are only so many hours in the day.

            It was immensely frustrating, but I went and talked to HR and the three of us had a sit down meeting and he actually did get better.

      2. BananaPants*

        I often want to respond to “emergency” requests with the old, “Your failure to properly plan does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I don’t – I’m not crazy – but it’s so tempting.

        1. Sled dog mama*

          I have been so tempted to tell some of the physicians I work with that their lack of time management skills does not constitute an emergency on my part.

      3. designbot*

        This. I’ve had to explain to a couple of coworkers, “If you tell me you need this ASAP that puts you in the back of the line, behind the things that are due today and the things that are due tomorrow. Then tomorrow more things will come up with concrete deadlines that will also make it ‘not possible’ for me to get to your thing yet. So pick a day you need it by, otherwise it will always be the last priority.” Because truly, I have at least one deadline every single day, and EVERYTHING else is ASAP.

    1. NW Mossy*

      I had something of an epiphany about urgency last week when talking to one of my employees, who’s been 1-3 weeks behind on an ongoing task for a while now but able to jump on some tasks almost immediately. She mentioned in passing “Ex-boss always said that this should be my last priority,” and it finally clicked for me – she looks at urgency based on the type of task, not when it’s due or other factors. I also realized that another employee who’s also struggling with urgency has a similar mindset, and that’s likely a source of our ongoing miscommunication.

      Stepping back and thinking about it, these are both valid ways of thinking about work. If we assume 4 tasks (A through D) from highest priority to lowest, a task-based urgency model says “I do all the As, then all the Bs, then Cs, then Ds.” A time-based urgency model says “C is due Monday, A is due Tuesday, D is due Wednesday, and B is due Thursday.” A blended model would say “If B and C are both due Wednesday, I’ll do B first and then C. If I can’t do both by then, I’ll renegotiate expectations on C first because it’s probably more flexible.”

      I’m a blended-model person almost by nature – it’s so ingrained in how I approach things that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. To me, it’s almost impossible to call it “prioritizing” if you don’t take multiple factors into account. I’ve now realized, though, that this simply isn’t how some of my team thinks – their task-based model says “It’s fine to have not looked at D tasks in a month because I’m current/ahead on A and B.” But as their boss, I need them to be more blended because while D isn’t the most important thing ever, it does still need to be done and kept current within a week or so. I feel sort of dumb that it took me so long to figure this out, but at least now that I realize it, I can coach them towards what I need them to do.

    2. Lily Rowan*

      I’ve gotten the “lack of sense of urgency” feedback before, and it’s not because my stuff doesn’t get done in good time, but because I’m never running around like a chicken with no head and snapping at people for no reason. So it doesn’t look like I’m freaking out from the outside. What I am doing is GETTING IT DONE. And that’s totally an inherent personality/temperament trait.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yes! And I got that one a lot in fast food jobs, way back when–what they wanted was for me to be walking super fast, I think, but that’s a recipe for a broken neck in a greasy, crowded, often mop-watery kitchen. It’s not like you can really shave that much time off the task by race-walking either, since the store was never all that big in the first place. I think it was all about wanting the customer to see us looking rushed.

  5. a big fish in a small pond*

    Oh! These are all SO true (speaking as a boss)! I need my team to read this!

    THIS! THIS! 100% YES:
    “I just need you to get it done.” Sometimes this means “I understand that there are lots of challenges to this, but you need to do it anyway.” Other times it means “I don’t want to be involved in figuring this out; I want you to handle this without involving me.” Get to it.

    1. LQ*

      I think this is totally something you could send to your staff. Especially with a little bit of the language from Alison’s post above saying you might be asking more often what they understood so you can be sure you’re being clear.

  6. Camellia*

    One manager used to say, “We have to think outside the box,” and then would stop and stare at you intently. It took a while for us to figure out that what he wanted was for us to work overtime on something…

    1. CM*

      That reminds me of when my new boss told me that he really wanted to know what I thought about his plan, and I said, “We’ve actually tried that in the past, and have run into the following obstacles: X, Y, and Z.” Then he reiterated exactly what he just said, and told me that he wanted to know if I had any objections because he valued my input and experience. I said, “I agree with your goal, but I’m concerned about X, Y, and Z. I think [alternate plan] would address those issues.” Then he said exactly the same thing again, told me that he wanted my candid thoughts because he really cared about what I had to say, and stared at me until I finally figured out that he just wanted me to agree with him. That pattern repeated itself in future meetings. He must have read in some sort of management manual that you should tell your reports how much you care what they think.

      1. Becky*

        I had an uberboss like this. He’d call my boss and me into his office to tell us about a great idea he thought he had. He was just asking for opinions, he assured us. Except if our opinion was anything other than “Yes, this is a great idea,” he’d immediately get defensive, state he was just asking for opinions, and repeat it all again.

        My dad would say that those higher up bosses are very insecure.

    2. Jamie*

      That’s not business parlance…he’s just a cryptic jerk. I’d assume thinking outside the box meant finding a novel solution so there would be no OT and everyone could leave early for french martinis.

    3. Prismatic Professional*

      Doing more OT isn’t really thinking outside the box though. It’s a normal thing if you need to get more stuff done.

      1. Camellia*

        Yup, until that becomes the norm and then somehow everyone thinks you are getting all that stuff done in 40 hours so working a little overtime should be no problem. Right?

    4. Hellanon*

      That damn phrase! I have taken to fixing my students with the side-eye of death when they use, and requiring them to define “the box” that everyone’s thinking outside of first…

      1. Tully*

        My first instinct is always to ask “What is this box exactly?” which usually evokes a response of “You know, the box…” and they start outlining a cube with their hands… which then brings me to the killer response of “You are going to need to break this down for me”… which then evokes terror and a lot of generalized phrases.

  7. Sharon*

    This topic is a bit tricky because lots of “boss speak” is used by really bad and overly political bosses. This article explains how a good boss would use the phrases, but bad bosses also use them and then they could mean anything.

    Just for example, there is the “be a team player” thing, which actually isn’t included in this article but it’s something that a boss threw at me early in my career and I had to suss out. He threw it in my face in a performance review – I was not a team player. Which blew my mind because I always got all my tasks done and helped out coworkers when I had the bandwidth. For me, young and naive, “team player” meant that everybody pitched in to get the work done, like sailors on a ship. You see something going undone, you do it. That kind of thing. But for this boss, it meant that I neglected to yes-man him and make him look good to his boss. That was a hard lesson. (Bad boss because he should have understood that a well-functioning team, which we were, made him look good to his boss. But he was more interested in schmoozing.)

  8. LQ*

    Sometimes I think these mean that you don’t understand the project. “I just need you to get it done.” can mean stop futzing with the last 10%, don’t spend 10 hours on a tweet, just get it to 80% and do it. Perfection can be a problem. I’ve overheard my boss saying “I just need this done” to a coworker a lot lately. She doesn’t seem to get that doesn’t mean spend another 40 hours on the project. (I actually think my boss is being really clear in this case, she just doesn’t want to let it go, but it could be because I agree with him on this.)

  9. Paloma Pigeon*

    Does anyone ever have an issue with some employees that push back about everything? It can be exhausting to have minor stuff questioned constantly, and to always have to take extra time to explain…”well, actually, here’s why it needs to be this way, because of the audit/board/politics etc.” Any language on how to address this pattern or links to previous threads would be appreciated.

    Or I could go all W: “Because I’m the DECIDER.” : )

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Maybe something like this: “Can I give you some feedback about something? I’ve noticed that you’ve been pushing back on assignments and procedures really frequently — at least several times a week. I want to know when you have questions about something or thoughts on a better way to do it, but I also need to balance that with our need to move forward with the work and not debate every detail.”

      Depending on the sorts of things she’s raising, you could also potentially say: “Can I ask you to hold the things that are more minor, and if they still seem big to you a few weeks later, put them on a list for us to discuss?”

    2. Jamie*

      I do tend to explain the whys when someone is learning a new task and I’m certainly happy to go over it again as I don’t expect everything I say to be chiseled into stone tablets and revered…but if it continually happens and it seems like an unreasonable amount of push back for the sake of it a conversation about that needs to happen. Ask why, after being given the reasons for whatever, there is still confusion. And the expectation that while always happy to explain the reasons, if I’m not immediately available and it’s something that has a procedure then the procedure needs to be followed and we can address the bigger picture at another time.

      Some people push back because they understand the temptation of going to the path of least resistance. If you know asking Jody to take on X will result in foot dragging, unreasonable push back, and be a huge time suck but Buffy will do it properly without drama…that’s how she turns into the one picking up the slack for the ones who pat themselves on the back for dodging a task.

      Dangerous game because guess who is the more valuable employee…as long as you don’t burn her out.

    3. James*

      Sometimes you have to say “Because that’s how I decided”. Being the manager means you are the one with both the authority and the responsibility. SOMEONE has to make the choice, and ultimately it’s you.

      If you’re on good terms with the person asking, it can be helpful to explain it to them–it’s a teachable moment, and builds a mentor relationship. If you’re NOT on good terms with them (either because you’re on bad terms with them or because you haven’t worked together enough to be on any terms with them) my recommendation is to pull them off to the side and explain that while you value feedback, there’s a time and place for it, and that sometimes they’re going to have to trust you.

    4. Lemon Zinger*

      Yeah, one of my coworkers was like this in the weeks after she started. Not sure why she felt empowered/safe enough to say things like “Why do I have to learn this? It doesn’t seem like we’ll use this much for our jobs.” She also complained about doing ESSENTIAL trainings/meetings/self-study.

      I just tried to explain things like I would to a child: slowly, simply, and with lots of context. Ultimately the problem continued. I felt uncomfortable with trying to manage a peer, so I talked to my boss, who had a sit-down with my coworker. Everything is (mostly) better.

    5. Sled dog mama*

      Ugh I just left a job with a pseudo-boss (it’s complicated don’t ask) who would nitpick the weirdest things.
      We have this meeting to review a monthly report (one report each month for each of three machines so we did this three times a month, sometimes more if a report wasn’t finished) and every single time he’d say “why isn’t there a date for X, there should be a date, what do you think?”
      In five months he showed a disturbing hostility toward initiative so none of us ever modified the report to include the date he was asking about and he never told anyone to actually make the change.

  10. James*

    The “ownership” thing is what frustrates me. The issue is, particularly in a matrix management organization, it’s not always 100% clear what your authority is. I’ve worked on projects where what appeared to be a tiny, normal change actually involved a tremendous amount of back-story and taking on FAR more than the request for the change initially suggested–stuff you wouldn’t know without being in on that backstory. Or, a superior has decided something and it becomes non-negotiable. Or you get stuck in the middle of a power-play between two superiors. It’s difficult to “take ownership of” a project when you feel that you’re constantly tap-dancing in a minefield!

    I have found that expressing that concern is useful. Something along the lines of “Could we have a meeting clarifying my authority with regard to this project? I think we’re not all on the same page here” can show that there are management concerns, not just work approach issues. And it got me additional authority, which was nice! On the flip side, it can set off overly-touchy people.

  11. Ann Furthermore*

    The “bad attitude” makes me bristle (which probably makes it sounds like I have a bad attitude, heh) but it’s what my last boss always told me. Now, I will readily admit that I’m not always a beaming ray of sunshine, and it is something I’m aware of about myself. My default mindset is snarky, and I’m not afraid to call out BS when I see it. I usually keep the snark to a minimum when I first meet or start working with someone, until I have a good feel for their sense of humor. Some people don’t mind if you joke around with them, but some people don’t really like that, which is fine.

    But to me there’s a difference between having a bad attitude and calling out BS, and over time, OldBoss thought that everything was a bad attitude. Asking why a C-level exec from a sister subsidiary was allowed to scream at people on our team during conference calls with no one calling him out on that? Bad attitude. Being upset about having to drop everything and make travel arrangements to go to another location at the absolute last minute, because the people there insisted that I had to be there, only to end up sitting alone in a conference room the entire time chatting with people via IM because those same people couldn’t be bothered to get up from their desks and come talk to me in person? Bad attitude. Expressing frustration about preparing painstakingly detailed, mouse-click-by-mouse-click, keystroke-by-keystroke training documentation that was routinely ignored because it’s easier to just IM or call someone to fix something for you instead of doing it yourself? Bad attitude. It really burned my muffins. Calling out rude, inconsiderate, and abusive behavior is not having a bad attitude.

    Her other favorite gem, related to the “bad attitude” stuff, was saying that you can’t control what people do, you can only control your own reaction. This is 100% true, and I’ve told people that myself on occasion. But she got to the point where she thought it meant that saying nothing while people ran roughshod over her and her team made her the “better” or “bigger” person. No, it just makes you the weaker person because you’re too intimidated to speak up and say, “Hey, that’s not OK.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      “Calling out rude, inconsiderate, and abusive behavior is not having a bad attitude. ”

      No, but it really depends on how you do it. Tone matters a ton with how it’ll come across.

      1. Jamie*

        This. Granted I’ve been on the other side of the attitude discussion. Both when it was completely specious and when they absolutely had a point.

        When it’s said by someone known for irrational assessments and would call everyone out for their attitude when s/he was in a bad mood I’d be pissed but consider the source.

        When said it was legit the conversation was always prefaced by the acknowledgement that I was consistently polite and professional. I’ve never been accused of being uncivil at work because I’m always very conscious of not giving anyone anything that would make me look bad if quoted in a deposition. :)

        Apparently professionalism without feigning personal interest because crazy busy or because you’re so miserable that it’s only the professionalism filter which keeps you from telling people what you really think of them is “unapproachable.”

        I will always defend an employee’s human right to forgo small talk, smiling, and the shared bubble baths and back rubs some people need in order to put in a request to your department when crazy busy with a crisis or crazy focused on a critical issue. The solution to that is to tell the person bitching about it to suck it up and submit a request knowing that they aren’t going to kill you with their stapler because that would be unprofessional.

        The other one? Even without being able to point to one comment or gesture which was out of line people can smell contempt. Even when you give them nothing overt to use against you. They hate this btw. A lot. Even when you deliberately modulate your tone of voice to give them nothing (they hate this too) there is a tone of presence almost. No matter how professionally stated, if the comments stem from wanting to point out how they suck it will come off very differently than if they come from a genuine attempt to solve a problem.

        The latter is legit attitude and it’s actually a lot more damaging to the disgruntled than anyone else. Examine the whys and if it’s something that can’t/won’t be fixed start looking elsewhere.

        You can do acceptable work in that state of mind. You can even do exceptional work when you need to…but you won’t do your best work. No one is at the top of their game working in a place where you’re viscerally angry all the time.

        1. Jamie*

          Wow – excuse the random neural firings…apparently I had a tangent in me that insisted on escaping through this edit.

  12. Cautionary tail*

    There’s the cryptic boss reply of “Y” to a question about s proposal. My coworker spent hours drafting a support justification to answer the boss’s textspeak “why?” answer. After submitting the justification the boss asked how come she wrote up the huge document when he had already said (meant to say) Yes.

    1. fposte*

      Call me lazy, but I’d have clarified before drafting the justification. I ain’t writing for hours on a single texted letter.

  13. hbc*

    That ownership thing is my life with one of my people right now, and I have done everything but do an interpretive dance to explain it. “You are in charge of teapot production, and I haven’t seen any improvements or proposals in six months. I need you to focus on improving the production line.” “What do you think needs to be improved?” “I dunno, I’m not in the details, but A B and C seem like they could run better. I could be wrong, though–maybe there’s some other part that would have a bigger impact.” “So you want me to improve B?”

    Dude, I want you to use your judgment on where best to spend your time. We hired you to be the expert on teapot production, you’re in the thick of it every day; your opinion should be more valuable than mine.

  14. Mother of Plants*

    Boss speak is incrediby frustrating. My favorite was:

    “Things are tought right now and I’m so glad I’ve got such a great team to be all hands on deck for awhile!” aka 10 min later in our weekly meeting I’m going to ask you to not cash your paycheck for a couple of days and I expect you to be all hands on deck about it.

    1. fposte*

      I think “boss speak” in Alison’s original post is turning into something else in the comments. Her post was including some common phrases bosses use that aren’t crystal clear to the uninitiated but do have pretty consistent implications. People are seeing this as an occasion to talk about infuriating stuff their bosses have said. And while bosses say some pretty infuriating things sometimes, they’re not out of line to use the kind of common phraseology Alison describes, so I think there are two different things here.

      1. Kelly L.*

        True! Though I think the trouble is that good managers use these phrases and do mean something consistent, and bad managers have heard the same phrases, and without understanding them, parrot them to sound more manager-y.

      2. Rebeck*

        Thing is, I’ve only ever heard these phrases used badly. Like “take ownership” when the manager continues to micromanage every action. Or “I need you to get this done” when we aren’t allowed to work beyond our set hours, there’s multiple competing priorities, and the manager will not help prioritise. I’ve never heard them used in a useful way. Ever. So the whole post has my back up, in a way.

        1. sstabeler*

          or “take ownership” used as ” I want you to take the balme for me screwing this project up so I can yell at you for the project’s failure”

        2. fposte*

          Interesting–can you identify the difference between them and the good bosses in this respect? What phrases have your good bosses used to encourage different kinds of work behavior from you or to warn you you’re going into the weeds?

          1. sstabeler*

            it’s not in what you say- it’s more where you are told something- “take ownership” for example- when you are not allowed to actually do that.

      3. pescadero*

        They do have pretty consistent implications… problem is the consistency is on the side where everyone is complaining.

        Allison addressed the “good” usage of these boss speak phrases – which account for about 1% of their use.

  15. Anonz*

    Just adding one. Today I learned that when my boss asks if I want them to reply to a client that doesn’t really mean they want to do it. Whenever they offered to in the past I figured it was because they had a certain way they wanted to convey the message or because they have more authority (advanced degree). Nope! Apparently they actually wanted me to try to answer it myself, not defer to them when they ask if I want them to answer. I’m supposed to say no! You learn something new everyday. In previous jobs my managers would be outwardly annoyed if I asked them to deal with something they thought they shoudlnt have to and they’d brush me off. So when my current boss asked me if I’d like them to answer I though it was because they wanted to actually answer it themselves, but that’s not the case! I’ve actually been doing myself a disservice by saying yes. At least I finally figured it out.

  16. He who walks behind the rows*

    “You need to take more ownership.”
    My boss just loves that one. But then 30 minutes later when I’m looking for him I find out he’s gone to a meeting with the client. MY client! THe project he just told me to take ownership of.

  17. bryeny*

    Here’s language that I’ve heard more than once and also seen misinterpreted:

    “If you don’t correct the problem we’ve been discussing, we’ll have to transition you out of the role.

    Colleague heard: we’ll find you another job.

    Manager meant: we’ll fire your ass. And they did.

  18. Office Plant*

    What should you do if you’re told you have an attitude problem, but it’s because of some Serious Life Stuff that you’re dealing with? For example, crying at work because you’re overwhelmed, taking care of a family member with an illness? Should you be forthcoming about the situation when your boss brings it up? What if it’s on the more personal side? What if a co-worker is making you feel bad all the time?

    Lots of questions, I know, but I’m genuinely curious. I’ve always wondered how to handle this kind of thing.

    1. CM*

      I would bring it up and be forthcoming with your boss if you can. Better to have an explanation, even one that gets more personal than you would like, than an attitude problem. If it’s a coworker, I would especially bring it up and ask for advice on how to handle it.

  19. Al who is that Al*

    I have to say I look askance at any manager who uses these phrases, I immediately think why are you using cliched phrases ? Do you either not understand what I am doing, or can’t be bothered to explain yourself ? Using these phrases makes you appear lazy or worse like someone who got bought any of the “How to be a brilliant manager” book and is regurgitating it’s contents parrot fashion.
    Shall I start speaking to you in text speak back,would that help ?
    Boss: “You need to take more ownership”
    Me: “ROFL”
    Boss: “I don’t understand”
    Me: “You started it”
    Boss: “Well, I need you to take more ownership”
    Me: ” Why not try saying, in a paragraph or more, specifically what you are talking about rather than mouthing a trite meaningless generalisation”

  20. Otter*

    It’s amazing the difference between a good and bad manager when they use, “boss speak.” My direct supervisor basically expects us to read her mind. I have had to ask for clarification before and she just gives me a blank look, as she basically doesn’t even KNOW what she wants, and is annoyed that I even dare to ask for clarification, but she just wants us to, “take care of it.” Or I have asked her questions, only for her to blow me off and said, “do it the way we’ve always done it,” and I remind her that “we” have never done it before, so I have no idea what that standard is that she is referring to and she just looks at me as if I’m crazy (I’m not, she’s a giant flake, she is also insists that she sent us emails that she never sent!). I have also had the miserable experience of, “owning” my work, only for my supervior to become jealous if I do well (she is the type who is always seeking verbal approval from her supervisor, so unless he compliments her, she is not happy, so if he compliments ME, she gets jealous) and then she does this thing where she feels the need to randomly insert herself into my projects (thus screwing them up… which I have to fix later on, while she gives herself a big pat on the back for being, “helpful”).

    Interestingly enough, HER supervisor, the, “big boss,” is typically very clear about what he wants and if I am not sure, I am able to openly ask him and dialogue in order to get a clear understanding. I am not made to feel as if I am inconveniencing him, in fact I think that he appreciates that I am detail oriented enough to ask him further clarification prior to starting the task/project, so he knows I think quickly. In fact, she seems to be jealous that HER supervisor will come directly to me to ask me to do things… she resents that he doesn’t go through her, so that she tells me, for projects that he asks me to do directly for him, I will report directly to him on the status, I do cc her out of respect. I think that it is immature for her to get upset at me, when I am only doing what HER supervisor wants me to do, so if she has issue with it, she needs to speak with him, as it is not my place to say anything or to insinuate that he cannot give me direct projects. I suspect that he often skips over her directly to me, because she often doesn’t understand or ask clarification from her supervisor when she is given tasks and that is why we get these strange requests for tasks from hr, in which she seems to have zero understanding of what we really need to do, but it is just tossed over to us to figure it out on our own (like the game telephone, where the message is garbled, due to people interpreting things differently than the original intent of the message). In addition, if there is an issue and we tell her about it, she acts as if she would rather not know. In fact, half of the time, she just ignores it and we are left to either find a back door on our own or things just come to a halt, as she is unwilling to deal with the issue. We had hoped that she would have retired by this year to put us out of our misery, but it appears that she is content and doesn’t plan to retire for another few more years. I do not know if I can hang on much longer, and there is nowhere else for me to go, even though I am being groomed for promotion by HER supervisor (which I think she suspects), unless she leaves or a new job is created for me (a possibility), I’m stuck. So, I think I have an issue to with her feeling threatened by me, because she knows that her supervisor sees potential in me to move up and basically to move up = her job.

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