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10 Words Terrible Leaders Always Use

The worst leaders always use these ten words.
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What's the telltale sign of a good leader? They know how to communicate in the workplace. People follow what they say (and what they do), listen to their instruction, and respect their wisdom. They say the right things. But terrible leaders? They use words like those listed below that destroy confidence, grind projects to a halt, and discourage everyone.

1. Maybe

Like a flare shot up into the darkness, the word maybe implies a shaky leadership style. When employees ask for time off, a bad leader says maybe. When the sales director asks for help with marketing a new widget, a bad leader says maybe. Confident leaders rarely use the word.

2. Incidentally

Bad leaders tend to say incidentally with a smirk. It's dismissive--those who use the word don't mean it as an aside. It's more of a put-down. Incidentally, I started this company and I'm in charge. Incidentally, you are an idiot and I'm the smart one.

3. Probably

Does the word probably belong in business? Not really. Good leaders know they have to find the hard data first--there is no probably. There is a specific percentage. When a leader says we will probably need better tech support for the product or we'll probably hit our sales numbers, it's a red flag. They don't really know the answer.

4. Unfortunately

I've written before how this is a dismissive term in e-mails. Bad leaders also tend to use the word when they talk to you. Sorry Bob, but--unfortunately--the firm cannot pay the expenses on your business trip. It's a form of control and oppression.

5. Corrective

A bad leader takes corrective action. I have to be corrective about that, they say. What does that even mean? It's a buzzword--the boss is correcting behavior. But being corrective is not a good leadership approach. Redirecting people and guiding them, encouraging a different approach, that's a sign of good leadership. By the time the boss needs to corrective about something, it's usually too late.

6. Blame

The word blame weasels its way into the vocabulary of terrible leaders. They say things like, I don't mean to blame you for screwing up a project. Or, I need someone to accept the blame for our financial losses. Great leaders don't talk about blame in the workplace. They find what is not working and fix it. Or they accept responsibility.

7. Usually

Acting decisively is important because it builds confidence. When a poor leader says usually it reveals a confidence issue--they don't have all of the information. They might say new a new app usually crashes or customers usually can't find parking at a retail store. Wait, did you really mean usually? It's best to find out all of the answers: how often, what is causing the problem, what are the exact variables.

8. Regrettably

The word regrettably is a dismissive term that poor leaders use to, well, dismiss people. They say regrettably I have to cancel your project, or regrettably I cannot attend your business lunch. The word makes it seem like the leader has a higher priority and, regrettably, you don't rank high enough on the scale.

9. Sometimes

The problem with the word sometimes is that it implies a lack of research and knowledge. If the founder of a company says people sometimes download a new app on Android phones, or new customers sometimes try to call an old 1-800 number, everyone starts wondering what's really going on. Poor leaders deal in vagaries and half-truths. Great leaders have the answer or know how to find it

10. No

There are times when great leaders have to say no. It's just not possible to agree to every budget item or every idea. Yet, if you consistently say no to everything, you become known as a naysayer. Your negativity spreads across the company. Figure out how to say yes more. Or at least how to prioritize more effectively.

Last updated: Jul 28, 2014

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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