Jay Mattern

The Five Most Dangerous Phrases in Business

Regardless of how buttoned up your company's communication strategy is and how clearly your vision, mission and values have all been defined, there are still some dangerous phrases that occur in a team setting. When they are uttered, they can literally strike fear into the leadership of any company. These are familiar to everyone and yet they continue to play out, many times unchecked. Let's take a look at each one.

1. "We've always done it this way."

Change is at the heart of all healthy, growing companies. At the same time, we can all recognize how difficult change can be. Whatever the motivating factor for change – a process no longer provides desired outcomes, a production method becomes obsolete, a team structure no longer supports your workflow – change is still intimidating for many. Inevitably, someone, somewhere counters with "We've always done it this way. "

This is a clear indication that the reason for the change – the "why" – has not been communicated and/or understood clearly. Moreover, the people directly affected by the change were likely not included in discussing and implementing the change. There's also a strong chance that they were told to "do it" without any explanation or opportunity to learn why the change is necessary and what the benefit will be.

2. "That's not my job."

Reporting relationships and organizational hierarchies are vital for maintaining order, or making team-based decisions and generally getting things done. It is equally important for a team member to understand his or her role individually and more broadly within the entire organization. But rest assured, no matter how detailed the job descriptions are, some task or function will fall outside the scope of the collective job descriptions. More times than not, someone will recognize this and take the initiative to address it. There will, however, be instances where the deficiency is noticed but the next words spoken are "It's not my job."

What is this telling you? Do you place too much emphasis on strict adherence to each job description? Is the focus of the organization mostly individual performance and not properly balanced with team contributions? Do you have the wrong person in the wrong role? Do you have a poor cultural fit between the individual and the organization? If you're hearing this phrase often enough to take note, a thorough examination is most likely needed to get to the root cause.

I'm afraid of making a mistake

3. "I'm afraid of making a mistake."

Business is highly organized. Systems are developed. Processes created and implemented. Methods support efficiencies, and all of these lead to improved outcomes, defined as "quality" and "productivity." Many corporate missions include the word "excellence," and a great deal of attention is paid to getting it right, as it should be.

What happens, though, when this message is interpreted by the employees as intolerance for making a mistake? Will they decline the opportunity to try something new and defend their inaction by being afraid of "making a mistake?" It's important for leadership to differentiate between mistakes that result from carelessness and those that come from responsibly trying a new method or approach. The former is a waste of time and resources, but the latter is a learning experience. Making sure your employees understand the difference can take you from an organization with rote compliance to the rules to one that promotes continuous improvement and a spirit of innovation.

4. "Surely someone already thought of that."

For decades, the debate about quality has been whether to build accountability into each individual job or relegate it to a dedicated team. Regardless of how you structure this responsibility, a lack of initiative to speak up can be very dangerous. Those involved early may think that any errors will be caught later, while a final review team may assume that a particular element was intentional or that the job as a whole was completed meeting corporate standards. The only way to overcome this dilemma is to foster a mindset of open communication throughout your entire process. If everyone feels empowered to raise a concern, you can avoid costly and reputation-damaging mistakes.

Boss, we have a problem

5. "Boss, we have a problem."

We are all familiar with Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The system that has always worked suddenly doesn't work. Or, a unique, unprecedented situation presents uncharted challenges. In many cases, we jump to solve the problem only to create one or more "unintended consequences."

The good news is that the problem is noted and the person or team accountable for where the problem now lives is identified. The next step responsible management or leadership takes is to report it to their supervisor. "There is an issue I need to bring to your attention. We have a problem."

The issue is when this reporting of a situation turns into a transfer of the problem. What started out as one person's or one team's problem now belongs to the next level of management. It happens unceremoniously and without pretext or warning. The central issue becomes not the problem itself, but ownership of the problem. How can this be avoided? Simple. Reward problem ownership and problem solving. Encourage responsibility for taking on a problem and doing the hard work to solve it.

Five dangerous phrases

This article is not to suggest that these are the only phrases that can cause serious damage to organizations, but these five, like cats, tend to have multiple lives and continue to plague businesses both large and small. They are strong indicators of a crack in the culture and, if not addressed with a permanent solution, will open the organization up to deeper problems that can seriously impact its future. Swift and sure action should be taken to eliminate these five dangerous phrases from your organization's vocabulary.

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