When a boss interacts with an employee, there's a power imbalance.
Every word and inflection is loaded and nuanced. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and the leaders themselves may try to reduce that imbalance through the way they communicate.
But the resulting interaction doesn't always serve the employee and the relationship. The employee could feel even more disempowered and their trust undermined.
Here are three examples:
Put downs are never a good idea, even with your friends. Even if it were a good idea when the playing field is level, it's certainly not a good idea between bosses and employees. Leaders may think a bit of sarcasm, some cutting humor, a little dig here and there can make them seem more accessible or more friendly. But, in fact, it has the opposite effect.
When you have to give negative feedback, you need to make sure about your intentions. It shouldn't be about blowing off steam or venting. You can and should do that stuff separately, on your own time.
And it's absolutely possible to give negative feedback without insulting and putting people down. When giving feedback, think about the best outcome that you're solving for right now.
You may have heard of the sandwich method, which is to "sandwich" the negative feedback between two compliments. But there are several problems with this approach. The compliments can be perceived as inauthentic and manipulative and therefore, dismissed. And to the one giving feedback, it can feel formulaic and contrived.
The compliment sandwich can be useful, but not if you're just parroting and giving random compliments. Instead, use it to create context around the negative feedback.
For example, make it clear that you're giving negative feedback because you think the recipient is capable of doing better. After all, you don't give feedback to someone unless you believe they can improve. If you don't think they can do any better, then you just quietly plan to replace them.
In The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch wrote about getting flak from his football coach and feeling discouraged about it. But the assistant coach told him, "That's a good thing. When you're screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, it means they've given up on you."
The context also includes a partnership: "We're in this together. I'm here to help you improve, which you will if you do certain things."
Jokes about firing somebody
Never joke about firing an employee. It's a joke to you, but your employees have too much riding on the situation and the power dynamic is such that even if you're saying it to imply that you'd never do it, it always creates tension and anxiety.
Again, bosses may use jokes like this to show the level of trust and comfort they have with employees and vice versa. But a joke about people losing their means of livelihood is always a bad joke.
Of course, leaders can always say no. Just be careful about being too quick with using the word. It's fine to say no, but make sure people feel heard and understood first.
Explain your thinking behind the negative answer. By explaining your decision, the situation becomes a learning moment for your team members. They'll better understand you and also become better decision makers themselves.
Those are three of the worst things bosses can say to employees: put downs, jokes about firing them, and a no without context or explanation. These things can hurt a leader's relationship with team members and harm their morale.
You can avoid saying these and similarly damaging remarks by being more intentional about the goal of each interaction. Before starting a conversation or firing off an email, take a minute to remind yourself of what you want to achieve. Ask yourself, "What is my best potential outcome right now?" And then choose the best words that will get you there.