27 September 2023

Pro-nounce: Management clichés that reveal more than they say

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Judith Humphrey* has identified five cliched phrases that should be avoided like the plague.

Whether you’re a project manager, VP, or a CEO, you want to avoid turns of phrase that make you sound weak, clueless, or just plain offensive.

Too often we use familiar expressions without considering their underlying message.

Here are five expressions to avoid if you want to project a positive management style.

  1. “Let’s circle back on this”

4This circumlocution is all too common. It reeks of indecisiveness.

Use this cliché, and you’re telling everyone: “I haven’t the foggiest notion what to do–so let’s not do anything.”

Avoid that expression and that mind-set. As a boss, you’re supposed to lead.

  1. “We need to manage expectations”

This expression is commonly heard in many offices.

A quick translation is: “It’s not going well.”

It’s a gutless way of saying that management won’t deliver. Choose a more honest way of delivering the same news.

Tell your direct reports, “We may lose our largest customer,” or, “Our year-end results are down 30%.”

More significantly, discuss how to change that reality and improve outcomes going forward. Others are looking to you for leadership.

Don’t paper over poor results.

But your large mandate is making clear the steps that must be taken so that the coming months or year will be much better.

  1. “Let’s think outside the box”

There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with this management dictum, but too often it’s put out there with little additional guidance.

The expression suggests the need for daring, creative solutions.

For example, in advertising, you might think of great campaigns such as “Think Different” (Apple) or “Just Do It” (Nike). These pitches succeeded by shattering traditional wisdom.

But lacking guidance (and a motivated group of creative individuals), this advice may lead to confusion and frustration.

You should be able to explain what the “box” is–and what lies “outside” it.

If as a leader you make this statement your opening salvo, have a strong follow-up. Otherwise you’re encouraging mindless brainstorming, and most likely, failure.

  1. “Let’s blue-sky it”

This expression is even less clear than “thinking outside the box.” There’s no box to contemplate–only an open sky.

The dictum suggests to listeners that any idea is worth considering, and nothing is outside the scope of the discussion.

The result will be vague “groupthink” and lots of wasted time.

In fact, according to Adam Grant in his WorkLife podcast, group brainstorming often produces far less than individual thinking. It’s where “creativity goes to die.”

That’s because people in teams frequently demonstrate less courage individually than they would if thinking on their own.

So “blue-sky” thinking becomes a vacuous process.

Resist the temptation to suggest that people “blue-sky it” and find a more structured way of using the intellectual capital of your team.

  1. “That’s not on our radar screen”

On one level, this commonly used management expression makes sense. Saying, “It’s not on our radar screen” simply means we don’t see it.

But on another level, this phrase smacks of poor management.

For example, a team member might say to a boss, “Are we expanding our diversity training program this year?” and the boss replies, “That’s not on our radar screen.”

The response suggests the manager is ducking the question rather than responding to it.

A manager’s role is to think about such important issues and respond accordingly.

If diversity training is a good idea (and it often is), then put it on the agenda–or explain clearly why the time is not right for this initiative.

* Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a leadership communications firm in Toronto, Canada. She can be contacted at www.humphreygroup.com

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com

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