What Not to Say to Your Boss

Original art by J.E. Hargate

In 40 years as a manager and 10 as a Chief Executive, I tried pretty hard to be what I would call a New Age Manager. Building effective teams was the key, and that required treating people with a high degree of respect and helping them to do their best work. The great majority of the people I worked with were outstanding, and quite a number were legitimate superstars.

That said, there always seemed to be a few folks that seemed to enjoy testing my patience and goodwill as a matter of habit. Some managerial pundits call this the “2% Jerk Factor.” That premise says that even in best of workplace groups, you can encounter about 2% of the people that can be, well, jerks. I found that to be generally true, and certain consistencies with this group repeatedly triggered me and other managers I knew.

Over time, I could predict with some degree of accuracy when I was about to get perturbed by certain phrases and requests indicative of what I see as “taker” behavior. I found that the most valuable and productive people in the workplace tended to be “givers,” not “takers.”

So what follows are some of the nebulous, annoying and manipulative catch phrases and landmines that were used on me enough by some experienced but unthinking employees and managers that over time really lit my fire. They should have known better, and didn’t.

I also take the opportunity here to explore the cynically hard-nosed, politically incorrect and quite possibly offensive responses I fantasized about at times but thankfully never delivered out loud. Even the most progressive managers can have weak moments, right? Thinking it and saying it are thankfully two very different things!

But if you or anyone you know is ever thinking about saying something like this to your boss, I’m hoping you might want to think twice about that.

1) “Please let me know how you want me to proceed.”

Um, I want you to proceed to the door, step through it and not come back. You sound wimpy, indecisive, unwilling to take a risk and you obviously haven’t done your homework. You’re asking me to do your job for you, and doing mine is tough enough, thank you very much.

2) “I want you to pay for me to go to this networking event.”

I don’t think so. I think maybe you want to go have a drink, maybe even get drunk, eat some nice food, ogle some sexy bodies and potentially find a new job. No business important to our company or me will ever get conducted as a result of your networking. Effective networks are built by doing great things for people and making them happy, not smoozing. Please get back to work.

3) “I need some direction.”

See number 1) above. You appear confused and don’t know what to do, do you? Mea culpa, but I much prefer to work with people that do the hard thinking, evaluate options, make well-reasoned recommendations, set their own direction based on their clear understanding of facts, priorities and the lay of the land, learn by doing, are willing to make mistakes and try harder and then harder still. I am happy to help you learn how to do all that, but what you just said suggests you don’t need direction. Maybe you just need a therapist?

4) “This is just a rough draft for your review.”

Yuk. Please take your rough draft and light a fire under your behind with it. I’m not your garbage filter. You should deliver your best work, first time out of the box and you better have the courage to take a position, research it, be willing to defend it and take the heat if it’s totally off base. Rough drafts come from people who haven’t done the analysis and hard work needed to succeed. Bring it back when you’re proud of what you’ve done.

5) “This is about relationship building.”

I don’t think so, again. I have a “relationship” with my wife, and that’s the only really critical relationship I want or need. We can work well together and that would be great, but I really don’t want a working “relationship.” If an outside service provider ever sent their “Relationship Manager” to see me, I was curiously never available!

Their lavish expense account, which we fund with our business, pays for fancy meals, alcoholic beverages, expensive boutique cigars, ball games, “informational” seminars (creative play days), golf outings, poker tournaments and industry “conventions” that are nothing more than extravagant goodies offered to secure business and keep the competition out. The game is to get the customer so hooked on the perks…or the so-called “relationship”…that they can’t possibly make a rational business decision.

So please forget the relationship: let’s just do a lot of mutually beneficial business together based on clear communication, trust, ethical behavior and shared values. Take the football tickets and give them to charity, please, and give me your best work at a fair price.

6) “You need to pay more attention to my work-life balance.”

Do I now? Make no mistake, I want you to live a balanced life because I do respect you and if you do, you’ll be happier and do better work for us. But to be clear: I’m not responsible for your work-life balance, you are. We give you a job, and when you do it really well, we pay you at or above market. That’s the deal. You need to figure out how to do that and manage your other life priorities effectively. I trust you are adult enough to figure that out, right?

7) “We’re going to go off-site and do some team-building.”

I don’t think so, again. Great teams are built by getting great things done for your company and your customers faster than the competition, and that’s done on-site, or in the field with the customer. Competent leaders and managers know how to facilitate that process well.

If you have to go off-site and hire a consultant for team building, your leaders and managers need to be better educated or replaced. And by the way, the same thing goes for “Strategic Planning.” Forget the fancy, expensive resort with its seductive distractions that supposedly help creativity and freethinking by getting everyone away from the place where the actual work gets done. Get everyone in a room, bring in plenty of coffee and sandwiches, and stay there until the plan is done and done well.

8) “We need to increase our employee engagement.”

No problem. See number 7) above and get the work done well. Employees are engaged when they get great things done faster than the competition. They are inspired by “autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Read “Drive” by Daniel Pink and forget the games, slogans, door prizes, banners, motivational videos, off-site team building, stupidly cushy perks, mind-numbing social events and obsequious handholding and Kumbaya moments.

Yes, absolutely you must celebrate getting great things done faster than the competition and you should deliver fantastic incentives and financial rewards to suit. And if you can do that well, you will certainly enjoy the ride to the top of your industry as a great team with highly engaged employees.

9) “I don’t feel appreciated.”

Okay, so that’s clearly a problem that exists between your ears and maybe I can suggest some good therapists, if you like. Otherwise, just gently redirect your inner child and please get back to work.

10) “We need some really nice gifts and leave behinds for our customers.”

Yeah, I don’t think so, again. So, you think the pens, calendars, chocolate covered nuts, sticky-notes, logo-wear, football tickets, fancy dinners, cheese balls and all the rest of the expensive junk you say we must give away to prospects and customers because our competition does actually mean something significant to a customer? I really wonder about that.

We will deliver an exceptional value, on time and with a smile to our customers and will practically die to please them. That’s the best possible way to gain their loyalty, believe me. Forget the trashy trinkets and entertaining boozefests.

11) “I’m so busy.”

And this one is often said in a kind of whining, exhausted bleat…”I’m sooo beezy!!!”…usually in response to a very reasonable request to do something that’s clearly within your job responsibilities.

But, you’re just too busy to go that extra mile; I get that, what with your purportedly out-of-control personal life, self-inflicted emotional chaos and assuring that you take every available minute of your generous PTO just when we need you the most to pitch in, in addition to the ultra-long lunch hours, timing your arrival each day at precisely 8:00 am and likewise running out the door just as the clock strikes 5:00 and never, ever demonstrating even the slightest willingness to help out outside those strictly circumscribed time constraints.

I’m sure it takes assiduous planning to do only and precisely enough work to not get routinely chastised or ultimately fired and always have that fictional list of dramatic and implausibly routine excuses readily available…flat tires, fender benders, multiple deaths of distant but beloved relatives and pets, traffic jams, power outages, hardware problems, software issues, lost cell phones, influenza running rampant, flooded basement, migraines, dog ate my homework, locusts, the plague and more to assure you never, ever take on a new or challenging assignment, no matter how important it would be to someone other than you.

You aren’t too busy; you’re simply a master of work avoidance…a veritable black belt at not letting new work stick to you while playing the guilt card on your supervisor, and so seemingly sincere and ultimately accomplished at it that only someone with advanced detective skills and an abundance of free time themselves could ever hope to document your stealthy work-dodging in a manner complete enough to hold you truly accountable. So, you persist breezily in your position, to the growing dismay of your overachieving coworkers.

And you’re very, very beezy, aren’t you?

12) “I don’t mean to throw Susie under the bus, but…”

I just loved it when people would announce they were going to stab their co-worker in the back by prefacing it by saying they didn’t intend to do that. The truth is, you are throwing Susie under the bus if you don’t have the courage to tell her straight up and to her face what your issues are with her, but that’s not you because you are a passive aggressive that trashes people behind their back and then makes nice with them in their presence.

And more disingenuous still is the hint, the innuendo, the “just sayin’” little marginally factual gossip droppings you weave into the conversation to create some doubt about Susie that wasn’t there before. The best career advice I can give you is for you to focus intently on the quality and quantity of your own work, and leave the defenseless Susie out of the conversation, regardless of what your paranoiac, competitive or judgmental misgivings about her might be.

Well, that’s my list and no, sorry, you can’t ever really respond this way when you’ve been triggered like this, but it’s nice to dream every so often, isn’t it? As it turns out, I was known for being a far bigger softie in practice than these fantasy hard-nosed musings might suggest, but for the chronic abusers of my good nature, there were definitely times I felt like channeling my inner Jack Welsh …and thankfully didn’t.

That is when the deep breathing techniques helped a lot.

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Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.