3 (Extremely Irritating) Phrases That Managers Use When Things Go Wrong

By Heather Campbell

By Heather Campbell >>

If you’re a good manager, you let your team members implement ideas and try out new things without micromanaging them. You delegate tasks that create interesting opportunities and develop people.

You know this means sometimes things aren’t going to be done the way you want, and that occasionally things will go wrong. But you wholeheartedly believe wise words such as “the person who never made a mistake never learned anything.”

And most of the time everything is fine; you’re pleased with the results. From time to time you are even surprised and delighted by the unexpected brilliance of the outcome.

But sometimes a team member comes to you with bad news – things have gone wrong, mistakes have been made; maybe there’s quite a mess to clean up.

Now you face one of the tests of just how good a manager you are. What do you say when you hear this news? The response you give to your team member – who is likely to be disappointed already – is critical. The wrong reply will damage trust in you, their willingness to push boundaries in future, and their self-esteem.

This is one of those times when it’s worth recalling that long after people have forgotten what you said, they will remember how you made them feel. Your team member will remember for a long time if you make them feel even smaller than they are already feeling.

So, here are three things that good managers NEVER say (or imply through their behaviour) at this critical point:

1. “I told you so.”

Even if, beforehand, you expressed doubts about the path the individual was choosing, never point it out to them afterwards. They already know you told them so and don’t need to be reminded.

2. “I thought that would happen.”

This is the unhelpful response of the manager who successfully steps back in the first place, and then likes to assert their superior knowledge and experience in the aftermath. It’s often accompanied by an extra-irritating smugness in tone of voice too. Not helpful and not kind!

3. “Didn’t you realise that…?”

This one comes in many guises (“Didn’t you think that..?” and “Wouldn’t it have been better to…?” are a couple of alternatives). It’s always followed by words that point out just how foolish the individual has been not to have thought or acted differently at a critical point.

Again, they probably know this already so there’s no need to highlight it! And even if they aren’t aware, there are far better ways to help them understand where they erred.

If you recognise one of these as a typical response on your part, do yourself and your team members a favour – delete it from your vocabulary!

Replace it with acknowledgement of disappointment at the outcome, and genuine interest in the other person’s feeling and thoughts about how to move forward. This isn’t about putting on a false, positive face – particularly if the error means there’s some serious fixing to do. It’s about being authentic, considerate and constructive, even when there’s egg to clean off a few faces!

What other irritating/unhelpful phrases have you experienced when mistakes have been made? Leave a comment below or tweet us @CommsMasters.

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  1. I was working with a group of managers earlier this week and we were looking at the impact of questions. I asked them to listen to each other talk about something that did not work out how they had planned and to think of questions that they would have asked but told them to write them down instead. In the debrief we looked at the impact of the way they asked questions. One brave soul said that all of theirs started with “why didn’t you..” He really go it – thankfully.

    Great post

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