7 expressions that can kill employees’ trust in managers

Marion Steward

Good managers are rare. If you’re a manager, you may feel this is an unfair statement, but in today’s digital work world, team members need more support and more positivity from you than ever before.

One way to improve your image and relationship with others is to change the language you use. Every word communicates an attitude and avoiding ones that trigger discontent will make you a better, more caring manager.

The following seven phrases destroy trust and should be eliminated from any manager’s vocabulary:

1. I’m sorry you feel that way.

On the surface, this may seem like a caring statement. After all, it contains the seemingly supportive words “feel” and “I’m sorry.”

But this expression is actually dismissive. It doesn’t reference the problem that has given rise to the employee’s negative feelings. Instead, it implicitly suggests that the employee’s feelings are the problem. The boss is sorry the employee feels that way, implying that their emotions are what’s wrong.

If someone on your staff feels badly, probe: Find the issue that’s upsetting them, discuss it, and resolve anything that has created distress. That will lead to a more positive outcome.

2. I didn’t say that.

Someone may be calling you out for something you said. But, using this expression is divisive; it polarizes you and the employee.

These words are often used when an employee feels you promised something that you are now backing away from. Or perhaps the employee is reacting to a negative response you’ve had to them or their work.

Whether they are right or wrong, it’s best not to go head-to-head with them and discount what they remember your saying. Instead, build a bridge. Say, “Can you please elaborate?” Achieve consensus about what was said, as in, “Yes, I want you to be involved with this high-profile project. We are still waiting for that decision.” Once you have a shared understanding, work toward a resolution: “I will let you know when it moves forward.”

3. It’s company policy.

This expression is the kiss of death for any boss. It’s a turnoff, because it suggests you as a boss take issue with the corporation’s policies and don’t represent the leadership of the company.

Instead, own the policy. For example, don’t say, “It’s company policy that you have to come into the office on Thursdays.” Instead, use these words: “The new work-from-home procedures include one day when everyone can be expected to be here for meetings. And that makes perfect sense, because it gives all of us the opportunity to hold in-person gatherings.”

4. I know we promised this to you, but . . .

This expression can be unsettling to an employee, but there are circumstances that do change, and they must be handled with more delicacy.

In those rare situations when something that’s been promised by you is no longer possible (e.g., a salary increase is not going ahead because all wages have been frozen), explain that the company had to make a tough decision, and unfortunately it affects everyone. But show you have the employee’s back. Say you will keep the employee’s pay increase “on your radar” and let them know when wages are no longer frozen.

5. Sorry, I changed my mind.

A boss who uses this expression will never earn the trust of employees. Your word should be sacred. When you say something, you must follow through.

Suppose you’ve promised a staff member that you’ll support them in applying for a new role. But, you switch your position on this, realizing another candidate will be better. No employee will ever believe or trust a boss who switches positions on them. The simple way to earn trust is to follow through with any commitments you make. Changing your mind when the decision matters to the employee will create a fractured relationship and disengagement.

6. I need you in this role.

I need you in this role (e.g., “I’m not going to promote you”) is something a manager should never say.

I know a director who gave up a promotion into another department because her manager said “I need you in this role,” and “I don’t want to lose you.” Ten years later, she is still in that same role and can’t be very happy about the choice she was encouraged to make. Managers should see that moving their team members to higher ground not only is good for the team member, but speaks well of the manager and their leadership.

7. Copy me on everything.

A manager who asks to be copied on emails is sending a message of distrust.

If you want to be copied on the correspondence, it’s either that you don’t trust the judgment of your employee and feel you may have to step in, or, you don’t believe the employee has credibility in the chain of command (and you feel your name carries more weight!) Either situation means that you are undercutting your employee.

Instead, ask your employee to “keep me posted on how things are going” and “let me know if at any point you need my support. I am here for you.” Giving your team members the understanding that you are confident they can handle a project will instill self-confidence in them and devotion to you.


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