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Business BS 101: How NOT To Get Ahead On The Job

Be wary of using certain words and phrases that send negative messages to managers.

Workplace etiquette can be exhausting. The appropriate attire, demeanor, and especially language, are necessary at all times. Above all, your words reflect and communicate your basic on-the-job attitude, though they don’t always accurately reflect your intent. Avoid using the following nine phrases that are inconsistent with acceptable job performance, particularly when it comes to urgency, follow-through and commitment to excellence.

“Oh, I didn’t know how you wanted me to handle that.”
This particular statement is usually made if you sat in the meeting and got complete directions. When this is pointed out, you might respond by saying, “I didn’t know what it meant.” There is a pattern of continual excuses beginning to emerge. There is also a tendency not to ask questions, since that might clarify the requirements. Remember that managers don’t mind employees asking relevant questions.

“I planned on taking care of it, but I was waiting to hear from you first.”
This approach is designed to throw off guard the person who is asking about the status of a project. At the moment, it appears to be a clever ploy because you are grabbing the initiative and putting the questioner on the defensive. More often than not, of course, it is a cover up for forgetting to do the job. Instead of irritating your superior, admit your mistake and get started right away.

“I didn’t think you needed it immediately.”
This may be one of the most commonly used tactics in business. A variation is often employed in high school and college when a student’s phrase begins with: “About that term paper due today…” If you hear these words coming out of your mouth, you probably dropped the ball and are attempting to avoid responsibility by blaming someone else for providing less than complete information.

“I thought someone else was taking care of that.”
This seems to be a variation of the “no one ever told me” ploy. Granted, it’s always possible the assignment was given to someone else, yet the “I thought” suggests you were aware of the task. If there is a question or some uncertainty, the appropriate step is to ask about it.

“Can that wait until tomorrow?”
There are certain phrases that seem to suggest a tendency toward procrastination. If you are on deadline, it is never a good idea to put off a project until later. A better question might be, “When would you like this completed?”

“I thought you would want it done this way.”
There’s a difference between “doing” and “thinking.” The problems arise when “doing” without “thinking” occurs. While taking the initiative is valued in business, doing so without going through a thoughtful discussion process is frowned upon. Find out what your superior is looking for and then proceed so you will be trusted when it comes to making decisions.

“What if we instead do that at the end of the month?”
Are you an efficient “deadline mover”? Adept at moving dates further out to buy more time and lighten the workload? A “yes” might indicate you are more a free agent than a team player. On the surface, this question appears to be procedural. At another level, it may be an attempt to redefine a work requirement.

“What if we sent all of them the same letter?”
Do you find yourself getting work done the easiest possible way, even if it changes the character of a particular project? Personalizing a group of letters takes time, and it’s certainly easier to send the letter to “Dear Valued Customer,” but doing so may have a negative impact on customer perception. Don’t be the worker who always wants to “round off the edges” on projects, procedures and tasks with the purpose of making them easier.

“I’ve never done that before.”
This is one of the most revealing of all the phrases because it not only justifies a lack of interest in learning something new, but it is a less-than-subtle suggestion to pass the job to someone else. It’s always appropriate to let your boss know if you are unsure of how to handle a project, but there’s a difference between accepting a challenge and attempting to avoid doing the job.

These statements raise interesting issues. While a case can be made for the fact that many managers provide incomplete information and unclear directions, it is also possible that your use of one or more of these phrases demonstrates “job insulation.” Guilty insulators try to avoid responsibility by blaming the supervisor asking about the status of a project, job or task. From a manager’s viewpoint, if you regularly use these phrases, you probably can’t be counted upon to do a first-class job.

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John R. Graham Meet the Author
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications in Quincy, Massachusetts.


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