If You Want To Talk Like A Boss, Consider How You Take Credit And Give Orders

Leaders should be aware that certain phrases come with loaded meanings.
What you mean is not always how other employees will hear it when you're a boss.
Tara Moore via Getty Images
What you mean is not always how other employees will hear it when you're a boss.

After catching the phrase from a former boss, I can’t stop saying “No worries” to any work communication needing a confirmation. A delay? No worries. Compliment? No worries. Problem solved? No worries.

No worries, and its cousin “No problem,” are phrases that signal the positive intent of “It was no big deal” or an affirming “OK cool,” but they can also undermine your authority, depending on how the phrase lands. How you convey authority is dependent on how employees hear authority.

When you are a boss or aspire to talk like one, you want to make sure your ideas get heard and understood. I talked with career experts and linguists about what boss language sounds like and what phrases can undermine good management.

Instead of “No problem/No worries,” try “I’d be pleased to” or “Certainly”

When you use “No worries” or “No problem” as I do, the phrase can actually have the opposite effect. Once you say there is no worry or no problem, the recipient may hear that there actually was an underlying issue to be concerned about. In other words, just saying the word “problem” introduces the possibility that the situation wasn’t great.

This kind of language can send the negative message of seeing people as problems, said Judith Humphrey, founder of the Canada-based communications firm The Humphrey Group. “You’re positioning the other person as a problem, but you’re going to let it go,” she said.

The goal of a boss conversation is not always relaying information, but sometimes to build rapport with your colleagues. And in that case, a casual “No worries” can introduce unwanted questions about your colleague’s performance. Take the scenario of a boss telling their employee “No worries” after being told about a minor production delay.

“Even though the ostensible purpose is to reassure the underling, the actual impact is a negative one unconsciously,” Humphrey said. “I would say, ‘That’s fine with me. I’m fine with that.’ Or even something like, ‘I’ll look forward to it. I’m sure it’s going to be great.’ Replace the negative with a positive.“

Other positive substitutes that Humphrey recommends are “I’d be pleased to,” “My pleasure” and “Of course.“

The challenge of workplace speaking patterns is that each of us grows up learning a different one, and when we are leaders at work, we may think our linguistic style is best. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” has written extensively about the different conversation styles that we bring to the workplace.

“The answer will always be for each person to be an observer of their own interactions,” said Tannen. “If [you] don’t like how something is going, somebody seems to react in a funny way, you could back off and ask yourself, ‘Could it be something about the way I spoke that made that impression, had that effect?’”

Tannen said “No worries” can come across as self-deprecating and unprofessional, noting that accepting thanks for doing your job is tricky. “You don’t want to say, ‘You’re welcome,’ because that’s like saying, ‘Yeah, I did you a big favor,’” Tannen said. Instead of answering “No worries,” Tannen recommended substituting “Certainly.”

The problem with “Anyone could do it”

Self-deprecating language that minimizes your expertise can backfire, depending on who hears it. In her book “Lead From the Outside,” former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams recalled getting feedback early in her career on how she handled compliments:

When someone would pay me a compliment, I deflected. My response typically consisted of a quick thanks, and then some variation of “anyone could do it.” One day a veteran woman legislator pulled me aside. “You need to stop giving your power away,” she warned me bluntly. I asked what she meant, and she replied, “If these men think you’re smarter than they are, let them. That means they’ll come to you for advice, and you can help. But it also means they might follow your lead. But if you keep saying you’re nothing special, they’ll start to believe you.”

Obviously self-deprecating language like “Anyone could do it” or “I’m no expert” does you no favors as a leader in communicating that you know what you’re doing. Hedging orders with expressions like “I can’t quite tell” and “I’m not sure but” downplay your boss status. A team member who hears them can actually hear that you’re not sure about a decision.

“They’re using all these minimizing expressions that make them sound as if they’re giving power to their team but in actual fact, they’re making a team uncomfortable because it sounds too tentative, too unsure and too un-leaderlike,” said Humphrey.

It’s also important to recognize that female leaders face unfair extra scrutiny on their ability to take ownership of their ideas. Tannen gave the example of a woman who said she was pulled aside for using “we” too often and not taking credit for her accomplishments but was later called out for being too aggressively “self-promoting” when she switched to using more “I.”

“Our expectations of a person in authority and our expectations of men are pretty similar. But our expectations of women and authority are at odds with each other,” Tannen said. “Anything you do to fulfill one expectation actually violates the other. That’s what that woman came into.”

No amount of power posing, “uptalk” policing or other individual solutions aimed at shoring up a woman’s presentation as a confident boss can fix the systemic issues she faces at work. One study on engineers at a tech company found that men had an easier time getting credit for appearing self-confident than women. “The more confident male engineers in our sample appeared to be, the more influence they had in the organization,” the 2017 study stated. “Women were able to translate their self-confident image into influence only when they also displayed high prosocial orientation, or the motivation to benefit others.”

Gender dynamics also inform why women use buffering statements that do not directly say what they mean. Tannen said most men are sensitive to status and being one-upped in a conversation, while most women are sensitive to building rapport and taking into account the other person. “Women will be focused on, ‘Does this bring us closer or pull us further apart?’ and the men will be focused on ‘Does this put one of us in a one-up or a one-down position?’” Tannen said.

You can hear this dynamic when you do or don’t get an apology, or you hear an order as a request you can turn down. Take for example, Tannen said, a female college president who assigned her secretary a task by opening with, “Could you do me a favor?” The request for a favor was ritual, not an ask for a literal favor. Her secretary knew what she meant and said she appreciated the language. But when he heard it, a male board of trustees member pulled the president aside to remind her that she was the president. He was concerned about her appearing in a one-down position in public, but from the college president’s perspective, it was her very position that allowed her to phrase the demand as a request.

“The person in authority doesn’t give orders in too exclamatory a way because you don’t want to rub the subordinate’s nose in the fact that they have to do what you said,” Tannen noted. “It’s obvious you’re the boss, they’re the subordinate, they’re going to do it, but it can come across as, ‘She doesn’t think she has the authority.’”

Speaking like a boss means becoming multilingual by balancing the languages used among your team with the languages that the people above you grading your performance understand. One solution to correct any potential wrong assumptions is to over-communicate about what you meant.

“Don’t be afraid to meta-communicate, talk about the communication,” Tannen said. When you say sorry, you can note that you meant you’re sorry something happened, not an actual apology.

“For women who don’t want to come across as too overbearing ― which is something you really do have to think about ― you could do something in between, so not, ‘Could you do me a favor?’ [and ] not ‘Have this on my desk,’ but ‘I’d like to have this by 3:00, is that something you can do?’” Tannen said.

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