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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

7 Simple Phrases Effective Leaders Use


The first time I had the responsibility to actually lead people, I can’t remember saying a single thing that felt leaderly. All I was thinking was: “I hope I don’t blow this.” But when our team had it’s first real challenge, I could tell that some of what I said seemed to help, so I started paying attention to what stuck, and what didn’t.

Later, I had a boss who’s frequent mantra to me was, “You know what to do…” which was short-hand for: “Jim, I know you don’t have the confidence to trust your instincts, but I trust them, and I am not going to tell you what to do or how to do it, because you can figure that out for yourself!” It was a perfect expression to use with me, because it helped me develop the confidence to take initiative and do what I was hired to do.

Employees work best when they are able to use their creativity, discretion, and judgment to solve problems and get work done. The best bosses encourage this engagement and know it’s part of their job to help their team grow and evolve.

Although different people will have their own unique, go-to phrases to motivate, inspire, empower, and propel the people they lead, there are a few expressions that I hear over and over again from real leaders at all levels.

1. “I Don’t Have an Answer, Do You?”

This phrase is meant to encourage your employee to spearhead a problem-solving discussion. Too often in fast-paced environments, bosses become the answer man (or woman) instead of inspiring the people around them to use their critical thinking skills. If you are always solving every issue that comes up, your team will become dependent on you, instead of independent and capable. Use this phrase when you are trying to build someone’s confidence to trust her own decision-making.

2. “Show Me How You Got There”

At the same time that you should give people the latitude they need to make strides, it’s also your job to double-check their process to make sure their thinking is grounded in data and facts. This phrase can be a really helpful tool to start a discussion about the someone else’s approach to solving problems and making decisions.

3. “What Does the Team Think?”

This phrase reminds people that the boss’ approval or involvement isn’t all that matters. If you’re dealing with a bit of a lone wolf, it can help you remind her of the importance of listening to her team members and incorporating their ideas. It also gives you a window into which people are stepping up and encouraging collaboration and communication.

4. “Let’s Do This”

At some point, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and ask questions. If deadlines are at risk of being missed or time is of the essence, good leaders say something to propel their team to action before it’s too late. If people are stressed and stretched, it’s helpful to remind them that you’re willing to roll-up your sleeves and lend a hand.

5. “Let’s Assume We’re Missing Something”

Albert Einstein once said “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” In other words, learn to challenge your own thinking and encourage your employees to do the same. It’ll help people look at situations more holistically and to examine situations from all perspectives, which in turn yields ideas for more creative outcomes.

6. “Tell Me More”

Saying this phrase puts people at ease: It helps them get that you’re really interested in what they are seeing, thinking, and feeling. Often, bosses send the message that their people need to be as efficient as possible at every given moment. However, giving people the time to share more than whatever the pressing daily issues are allows them to go deeper. One leader I worked with once said, “Taking the time to use those three words with people once a week changed everything about our business. Most of what I learned came after I asked the question, not before.”

7. “We’ll Get Through This”

When big problems happen, great managers reassure their people without resorting to fake optimism. They don’t make promises they can’t keep. This phrase reminds everyone that they have built-in resilience and can struggle through the hard times without giving up or giving in. Plus, saying “we” adds a sense of camaraderie.

When it comes to developing leadership skills, It makes sense that there is a lot of emphasis on seeing the big picture and leading by example. But words matter too, especially when people are looking for guidance, inspiration or reassurance. Try using these phrases, or ones like them in your own words, to enhance your impact.