The 9 Most Demoralizing Things You Can Say to Employees

Your mother was right: It's better to think before you speak, especially when it comes to employee interactions. Here are 9 things never to say.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
March 10, 2014

Among the most powerful tools in your leadership kit are your words—everything you say as a leader matters. You have the power to affect not only your employees' day at the office but also how they feel when they get home.

That's because the words you say as a leader carry so much importance that people take them home with them. What's more, what you said to them may be the first thing they think about the next day upon awakening.

Some words can even affect people's careers, not just their day. "Think twice before you speak," Napoleon Hill once said, "because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another." Above all, some words have longevity—they stay in our memory for years to come.

Most leaders don't set out to be careless with the words they use, but demoralizing comments can slip out without much forethought. Here are nine tips to help you boost your awareness of statements that can unintentionally demoralize your people.

Beware of Words That Signal Doubt

A simple word such as "hope" can make employees think you doubt their ability. Replace "I hope you can handle this project" with "I have confidence in you. I know you won't disappoint me." 

Take the Sting Out of the Truth

When you need to be frank about an employee's chances for promotion, think about how to deliver the message without being blunt. "You have no future here" is one of the harshest ways to deliver the truth. If you give it some thought, you can be honest and kind at the same time.

Don't Pull Rank—Ever

The more power you have, the gentler your approach should be. Reminding people that you can fire them is a surefire way to demoralize them. Comments such as "I can easily replace you" or "I'm the one in charge here. Don't you ever forget that" have no place in a leader's vocabulary. "Because I said so" and "I don't pay you to think" are other examples of a leader's misuse of power.

Drop the Gratuitous Criticism

Giving your employees feedback for improvement is essential for their growth and development. Use your discretion when it comes to how far you can go with your observations. Consider whether your criticism has anything to do with running your business more effectively. For example, "You have a messy desk. You should keep your desk more organized" reflects your own preferences and may do nothing to improve your company. Give people latitude, and don't infantilize them.

Preserve People's Sense of Status

It's not unusual to hear a boss tell an employee "Let me do the talking at the meeting." It may be important that you lead the discussion with a client, but you can still achieve this without lowering the other person's status. For example, you can plan in advance how to approach the discussion at the meeting. Let the employee know which parts you'll handle and for which parts he or she will either speak or provide support. This makes the person feel valued as a member of the team, rather than as someone who isn't trusted.

Don't Belittle People

Grace and civility often erode in stressful work environments. Your frustrations with a novice employee may make you say deprecating comments, such as, "Is this what they taught you at your MBA school?" or "How many times do I have to repeat this?" When an employee makes a mistake, catch yourself if you're in the habit of making statements that diminish the person, such as "You have a knack for messing things up" or "What's wrong with you?"

Avoid Comparisons

"You don't know how to run a meeting. You should watch Bob" is a simple statement that's meant to help. Instead, the comparison risks generating negative emotions, such as envy, shame and resentment. Comparisons can also lead an employee to lose confidence in accomplishing a particular task.

Preserve a Person's Hope

One of the most unkind things we can do is to squash someone's hope. "Don't get your hopes up too much. You know your capabilities" is a bleak statement that's sure to be remembered for years. Don't slam the door on people—always leave a ray of hope to inspire them to do better.

Beware of Generalizations

Statements such as "I hear nothing but complaints about you" or "No one wants to work with you" rarely reflect reality. Find ways to help an employee improve without resorting to harmful generalities. If you're reacting to a complaint about the employee, you owe it to him or her to state the specifics. This is the foundation for an honest and productive discussion.

As Doug Conant, ex-CEO of The Campbell Soup Company, once put it, "Ultimately, as a leader, you're evaluated on how you interact with people." A key leadership responsibility is choosing your words wisely.

But, as the leader, you're also responsible for how your managers treat others. Don't turn a blind eye when the people you put in charge make demoralizing comments to the staff. Demoralizing words erode the self-confidence an employee needs to tackle important projects. They can also take away an employee's desire to give you their discretionary effort—the best they have to offer. They can even cause a key employee to leave.

It pays to be mindful of words. It's also the right thing to do.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.