Four Common Phrases That May Send the Wrong Message


I share “boots on the ground” observations. This week’s column is about some phrases that may seem harmless on the surface, but that may send a message we’re not aware we are sending.

A person who read my new book Sundays with Quint, which is a collection of some of my leadership columns, recently reached out. She shared how helpful the book is to her and asked where the content comes from. My first response was “thank you,” and then I explained that I am out in the field most weeks, often in person and at times virtually. Over the years, this has allowed me to build a foundation of trust in which people are comfortable sharing work situations (and, at times, personal situations). In addition, I still operate businesses.

It was my privilege last week to meet with three different leadership groups. Combined, these leaders were providing leadership to more than 40,000 employees. In one group, there were over 300 people new in their roles. These events lead to discussion around many real-life situations.

I sent Sundays with Quint to a CEO of a 14,000-employee organization with a note that the book may be especially useful to those new in a leadership role. The CEO responded with, “It is helpful to all leaders.” It is my hope that these columns each week are helpful to you as well.

This week’s column will share a few observations on some things we say that may not be comprehended as we would like.

Here are some areas in which to hold up the mirror. Consider whether you say these things.

“To be honest” or “honestly.” This statement may lead people to wonder, When they do not say “honestly,” what does it mean? Are there times when they are dishonest? My suggestion is to not say it. It positions the sender poorly. A few weeks back, I was on a Zoom call, and a person in upper management kept saying, “To be honest.” Later, the person called me and said “honestly” during the conversation. I asked if it was okay to provide an observation. He said yes, so I shared that I noticed how often he says “to be honest” or “honestly” and noted that it may send a message he does not intend to send. He was incredibly grateful and said it made sense.

“To be brief.” If you say it, please try to be brief. Have you ever noticed that those who use this phrase may not be brief? It is a vague statement. When I hear “brief,” I think a few minutes or less. To others it may be different. Ever think to yourself, That was one long brief? Of course, I notice characteristics in others that I myself possess. It’s best to say, “This will take around three minutes” (or whatever amount of time you need).

“Working on it.” Again, I was guilty of this statement till my boss cured me quickly of saying it. He asked me about a project I was working on—one that I had been working on a little but would be working on more now that I was asked about it. I answered, “Working on it.” My boss then said, “Great! Share with me exactly where the project is.” I then confessed that I had not done much on it. From then on, when someone tells me they are working on something, I ask when the “working on it” will be over. If you say, “Working on it,” make sure to include the date it will be done. “Working on it” is a useless phrase without specifics. You can also say to the person, “Bring me what you have done so far.” The key is to share the closure date of the project. It can lead to getting help on what may be keeping the task from getting done.

“He/She is high maintenance.” I was listening to a person in a leadership role whose job is to provide services to some people who are at the top of their vocation. He often described someone as “high maintenance.” The next day, I circled back and shared that it is not right to describe someone that way, for many reasons. It manages down the person. When someone is described as high maintenance, most do not interpret it as a good trait. It may not be others’ perception of the person. If someone has not yet interacted with the person, it can influence their perception of them. It also is a self-complimenting method. If someone says a person they provide services to is high maintenance, they may really be saying, “Look how special I am to be able to work with this person,” or, “Look how overworked I am.” The main point: Do not say someone is high maintenance. If they have particular needs and preferences—like saying that when doing surgery, they like the room at this temperature—of course share those. This is not high maintenance; it is providing the best environment and enabling the person to do their best.

I am grateful to be with people each week and to learn from them. These interactions are great classrooms in the school of life.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. His book The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high. In Sundays with Quint, he shares a selection of his popular leadership columns for leaders, employees, and business owners in all industries. His latest book, Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired, provides tools and techniques that are doable and that help employees and physicians experience joy in their work as well as enhance patients’ and families’ healthcare experiences.

Quint is the cofounder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points.