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Sometimes the little things we say can have a positive lasting impression. Maybe your boss shared bad news about a project, and you thought of the perfect response to soften the blow. Or you won over a difficult client with just the right reply to his email.
The opposite is true as well. When you use certain language at work to convey your frustration with the inevitable issues that arise, you can unwittingly give the impression that you’re not a team player, not good at your job, or don’t know how to appropriately deal with conflict—even if your point of view is justified. And that kind of reputation is hard to shake. What kind of language has that much impact? Here are seven phrases that you should never say at work.
1. “I Can’t Work With Her”
People operate with all types of styles, and clashes are inevitable. Maybe one colleague refuses to say good morning, maybe another always one-ups you in meetings. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to be best friends with everyone who happens to be employed at the same organization. But you do need to be able to work with them.
Instead of complaining and making yourself look bad in the process, focus on improving the relationship. Sit down with the person and have a heart-to-heart. Ask what you can do to make her work life easier. The results may be better than you think, and you could find yourself with a new ally.
If they’re not, and the success of a project or your reputation is on the line, you may have no choice but to loop in your boss. But select your words carefully. Phrase your comments about the colleague diplomatically and constructively, starting with the words “I feel.” Reiterate that you are coming to her because you want the project to succeed and have the best interests of your department and the company at heart.
2. “I Can’t Do It”
Instead of telling your boss you can’t do something because you have too much on your plate (which may lead her to think she can’t depend on you), detail your to-dos and ask for her help in prioritizing them. For example, you might say that you would love to help with the client presentation, but you are currently working on the team status report. Which should you complete first?
This strategy also works for the related no-no phrase, “I don’t have time.” You should also try to avoid saying that you can’t do something because of a lack of knowledge or experience. Instead, approach a trusted co-worker and ask for a short demonstration, showing that you are eager to learn and complete the task on your own with a little bit of guidance.
3. “That Won’t Work”
Blurting out these words in the context of a brainstorming meeting with your colleagues shuts down all productive conversation and can make you look like the one with a bad attitude. Even if you really believe something is not possible or is a genuinely bad idea, focus on being constructive with your response rather than negative. You could phrase your input like this, for example: “That’s one approach, though here are some of the challenges we might face.”
Remember to be enthusiastic about the mission of your group and your organization, and make alternative suggestions that show you are ready and willing to contribute in a positive and meaningful way. Also, be careful of your body language. Eye rolling, sighing and sneering, for instance, communicate “that won’t work” just as loudly as words do.
4. “But So-and-so Got...”
If you grew up with older siblings, you probably recall going to your parents with something along these lines: “Why can’t I have a car? My sister got a car when she turned 16!” In the workplace, you may find out that a colleague got something special—whether it’s a bonus, a project you wanted, or a more flexible schedule. Whining about it won’t get you very far here either.
It’s impossible to know the details of everyone else’s situations, so always speak in terms of your own experiences and needs. Be specific about what you need and why you should get it, without mentioning other people (and without using phrases like “It’s not fair!”). And try to identify potential solutions to your gripes before you approach your boss, so that it sounds like you’re problem-solving, not complaining.
5. “Guess What I Heard?”
Dishing the dirt at work is fun and nearly irresistible, especially if you’re bored or feeling unchallenged. Listen all you want, but refrain from contributing to conversations that could compromise someone’s reputation. Damaging stories spread like a conflagration, and being nailed as the source can be a career killer. And even if the gossip seems harmless, you don’t want to develop a reputation as someone who can’t stop chattering away about other people or fueling rumors that later turn out to be false.
6. “It’s Not My Fault”
You already know this phrase doesn’t belong in the workplace, but when you’re accused of making a mistake, it’s easy to get defensive. After all, you don’t want to damage your career prospects, especially if you had little or nothing to do with the error in question. I made this mistake early in my career and didn’t do myself any favors. I’ll never forget my boss saying, “Let’s not waste time tattletaling. You need to fix this.” It was then that I recognized that taking responsibility is one of the elements that distinguishes successful employees from unsuccessful ones.
Instead of looking to place blame, be solution-oriented. Help your boss figure out what the team can do to remedy the situation so that it doesn’t escalate further. And if you had any culpability whatsoever, show that you’ve learned from the experience and will approach things differently next time.
7. “At My Last Job”
Nothing turns people off like a newbie who waltzes in and says, “Well, at my old company, we did it like this.” The second this comes out of your mouth, people will think that if things were so swell at your old company, maybe you should go back. This is the last thing you want. For the sake of your reputation, use your first projects as an opportunity to observe how things are done at your new company. You’ll have your time in the sun soon enough.
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