As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words much of the time. But that doesn't mean that what you say as a leader isn't also influential. And if you really want to create trust and confidence in others, there are specific phrases that simply shouldn't come out of  your mouth.

1. "I'm too busy for that."

What your listener really hears when you say this is, "I'm too busy for you." It makes them feel like what they care about doesn't matter, and so that by association, they also don't matter. It also suggests you haven't planned well. Alternatively:

  • Be clear about what your current obligations are and invite them to check back in with you at a specific future date.
  • Be upfront about the fact you wouldn't do them or their ideas/needs justice, and point them in the direction of someone else who can be of help.
  • Let them know that while you can't (and won't) helicopter, and while they'll have to shoulder more responsibility, you appreciate their initiative and trust them to follow through. 

2. "You're not right for this."

A great leader is supposed to provide development opportunities based on both the potential and needs of others. But this statement completely ignores the other person's ability to learn and adapt over time, attacking their feelings of confidence and inclusion. It also reveals the leader has a preconceived notion of the kind of individual who might be suited to a task or position. Alternatively:

  • Point out some of the individual's key strengths and present other options. Tell them which positions or tasks you can see them excelling in and ask if they have thought of going in that direction.
  • Clarify exactly what the individual will need to do to be successful. Come up with a game plan for developing and measuring necessary skills. Form clear benchmarks where you can determine together whether to proceed or pivot. Push them to excel and explore, and they might surprise you. But like a great parent, don't be afraid to watch them discover for themselves what you already know or suspect.

3. "It's your fault."

Sure, an employee might have performed poorly or made a bad decision. But ultimately, as a leader, you have to be accountable for those under you. And pointing fingers doesn't offer a solution or help the worker develop, so they can avoid making the mistake again. Alternatively:

  • Talk objectively in terms of events and facts.
  • Discuss alternative paths that might have worked, or that can correct the error. This includes acknowledging what you personally could have done or can do in the future.
  • Ask what the individual needs from you to move forward to implement a solution. Emphasize that you are available and willing to provide support.

4. "I don't care."

You might say this because you're looking down on lower-level team members as if you're more important, or because you have genuine ambivalence to something they present. But egotism is toxic for the division and resentment it creates, and when a worker sees that you're disengaged and dismissive, they will be, too. They need direction and a basic acknowledgment of their ideas or initiatives. Alternatively:

  • Clarify what your priorities, expectations, and preferences are. Discuss whatever the worker brings to you in terms of those priorities, expectations, and preferences.
  • Express confidence in the worker's ability to make their own decision, but ask questions and offer whatever resources you can to guide them to their own conclusion. This will show that you're invested in them and that you do care about the outcome, even if you feel the choices are equally good or bad.
  • Thank them for their input and provide a clear explanation about why you're opting for specific actions.