Gini Dietrich

The Words and Behaviors that Undermine Your Leadership

By: Gini Dietrich | June 9, 2015 | 

Undermine LeadershipBy Gini Dietrich

I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with some amazing leaders, both directly and from afar.

I’ve also worked with the best leadership coach in all of the land. It is because of Randy Hall that I have learned how to behave, what to say (and what not to say), how to calm down before responding, and how to get the very best out of people.

And, because of Randy, I see certain things in other executives that makes me want to pull my hair out. I want to yell, “Don’t you know you’re undermining yourself when you behave this way?”

That’s why I was so interested to read Lolly Daskal’s Seven Phrases that Will Undermine Your Leadership.

You can read her entire article for context, but she highlights the following words and phrases:

  1. I’m not sure.
  2. Honestly speaking.
  3. So sorry.
  4. Literally.
  5. Like.
  6. I’ll try.
  7. Do you get what I’m saying?

I agree with all of those—and “literally” used incorrectly makes Laura Petrolino want to go postal (so I may or may not use it just to make her head explode)—and have a few of my own to add.

Words that Undermine Leadership

  1. With all due respect. If you want to see me go postal, use this phrase. It says to me, “I don’t respect you at all and you’re an idiot.” There are far better ways to disagree with someone.
  2. Frankly. We had a client who used “frankly” every other word. In fact, it got to the point that we would take bets on how many times he would use it in a meeting…and we’d keep track. The record? 526 times in one hour. This says, “I’m not being honest with you every other time I speak.”
  3. Like. I agree with Lolly on this. Somehow we’ve started saying “like” instead of “said” and it drives me crazy (though I catch myself doing it, too). But there are some among us who use it every other word. And, for someone in a leadership position, it makes you sound like a frat boy or a valley girl and not someone anyone should trust with their money.
  4. You guys. This is the northern version of y’all and it doesn’t work. Imagine a keynote speaker on stage in front of 1,000 people. He or she wants to talk to the entire audience and uses “you guys” instead of “those of you sitting here” or something similar. It doesn’t work.
  5. Actually. Imagine you are pitching your very best work to your client or to your boss’s boss and he or she starts off by saying, “Actually…” How deflating is that?
  6. But. A few years ago, I read “Yes, And…” and it changed the way I interact with my team. Rather than saying, “That won’t work” or “But, that isn’t possible,” I force myself to say, “Yes, that is a great idea! And if we add this or do this to it, what will happen?” It causes an instant morale change and a willingness to brainstorm beyond where they are right now.

Behaviors that Undermine Leadership

There also are certain behaviors that undermine your credibility. Some of them you can learn by watching, while others have to be taught.

  • Emails instead of in-person conversations. I will never forget traveling with our largest client in California eight years ago. We were at dinner and the client had some not-s0-nice things to say about my team. I was furious. I went back to my hotel room, at 11:00 PT, and fired off an email to the offending parties. Then I went to bed and finished my trip the next day. When I got back to the office, our managing director came in and closed the door. She said, “Do you feel better?” I didn’t know what she meant. She explained that, when I sent emails like that in the middle of the night, I was lobbing a grenade into the office and walking away. I had no idea I was doing that. It was a very good lesson in what is appropriate for email and what needs to wait until I can talk to my team in person.
  • Don’t communicate while angry. Likewise, it’s extremely important to calm down before communicating certain things. I always wait a day or two to talk to someone lest I not handle the conversation appropriately.
  • Smartest person in the room. I always say that if you have to tell people you are the smartest person in the room, you likely are not. If you’re truly the smartest person in the room—and you have a title to back you up—let your actions do the speaking for you. People far respect those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and treat their colleagues well versus those who name drop and talk about how great they are every chance they get to open their mouths.
  • Working 24/7. This was another lesson Randy taught me. Though I don’t expect my team to work 24/7, I send a far different message by my actions…because *I* work 24/7. I remember he told me, “If you really can’t shut it off at 6 p.m. and you have to work at 5 a.m., don’t let anyone know you’re doing it.” He used to shut down his computer, turn off his office lights, and say goodnight to everyone before heading to a first floor conference room to finish his work. That way, his team knew it was okay to leave (because he did). They didn’t know he was downstairs still working. Because my team is virtual, I installed SendLater so my emails arrive only during business hours.
  • Listen. I hate that I even have to mention this, but the more leaders I watch in action among their teams, the more important this becomes. As human beings, we don’t tend to listen to really listen. We listen to respond. Next time someone comes to you with a challenge, really listen to what they have to say. Don’t listen to respond and watch what happens to the conversation. You’ll see an immediate change.

Though these are leadership skills, they fold into communications because we’re giving off verbal and non-verbal cues when we say or behave these ways.

What words, phrases, or behaviors would you add to this list?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • SimeoneSergio

    ginidietrich Very interesting read! – The Words and Behaviors that Undermine Your #leadership

  • John Fitzgerald1

    So, don’t forget starting every answer with the word “so” . Drives me nuts and  every “expert” sitting with every TV talking head does it. It is as pervasive as the adolescent “what happened” when you did not hear what was said. English is fast becoming a second language for people who only speak English.

  • ginidietrich

    SimeoneSergio Thanks!

  • John Fitzgerald1 Yes! Great add!

  • I read that article the other day and I agree with some of it, though several are more about grammar/usage than leadership. And some I disagree with. For instance, I think the ability to say “I don’t know” (similar to “I’m not sure) is the mark of a confident leader. Nobody is expected to know everything. Though it should be followed by, “I’ll find out.”
    In the category of things that just grate on me and make me think less of a leader or speaker are the overuse of “basically” and the phrase “in regardS to,” which a lot of people do but is wrong. There’s “regarding” and “in regard to,” but the plural only works  in the context of “give my regards to [Broadway/Phil/Etc]. Mitt Romney does this ALL the time.

  • To Lead you just need to be authentic, focused, steady, and resourced. 
    Show no fear and never shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.

  • RobBiesenbach with all due respect, you guys in Chicago are not the grammar experts you guys think you guys are. But like I agree with enough training we can fix you guys.

  • LollyDaskal

    Love this! Great additions!


  • “In all honesty…” is the one that drives me up the wall.  So — you’re finally coming clean, after all this time?

  • Howie Goldfarb RobBiesenbach Y’all are making me laugh.

  • ginidietrich John Fitzgerald1 I agree with you, John (and I’ll link to my post explaining why). Now, we get dinged at Toastmasters every time we use the word “so,” even in appropriate contexts (I think there are legitimate uses of it, as in, “There is lightning in the area, so get out of the pool.”) Using it to start sentences, as a filler, however, really dilutes some otherwise fantastic messages.

  • LollyDaskal Thanks for the inspiration!

  • DickCarlson Love that one!

  • Howie Goldfarb Oh boy.

  • RobBiesenbach And now we know why he didn’t win the Presidential bid.

  • prblog

    The Electric Company and The Goonies pwn “you guys” anyway. HEY. YOU. GUYS!

  • I don’t know where to start with my effusive appreciation of this post! I have followed Lolly since I became a Leadership Freak reader a long time ago, and now I am fortunate to work with the Lead Change Group (of which she is an Instigator). As for the post, it is going to generate such a great discussion. Since several of us have gone down the “grammar/filler word” path which is a bit of a tangent, I’ll just get my current frustration out of the way: People who now reflexively say “right?” during a dialogue when the other conversant CERTAINLY MAY NOT SHARE those feelings. Happens on all the time. SIGH. // Anyway, as much as many of us love to quibble about grammar, the bigger issue is behaviors. I utterly agree about the emails vs in person convos, especially if a string that started off as one that was email appropriate turned unwieldy. Then it’s time to pick up the phone or go visit your coworker face to face. // I also have a tendency to apologize prematurely AND to minimize what I am about to say, as in, “You’ve probably already thought of this,” or “This idea probably has a lot of drawbacks,” etc. Looking forward to the comments on this post! 🙂

  • SendLater?! You’re so tricky! 

    Leave it to Gini to employ a robot to make it seem like she’s not a robot … 

    Also: I personally have a hard time with a lot of these things (I think). For me, it’s so much easier to be careful about the way I write than it is to be careful about the way I speak. That’s actually been one interesting part about doing video blogs–it opens my eyes to some weird verbal tics …

  • Eleanor Pierce That is SO true!! It is so useful to watch yourself on video (painful as it is ….).

  • biggreenpen Eleanor Pierce painful

  • I love this list. All great reminders. 

    I’ve learned so much about leadership since starting here. One of the things that stands out the most is the understanding that certain traits that might make me a valuable employee or team member, don’t necessarily make me a good leader. 

    That’s a difficult separation to make and a hard mental transition, but definitely one of the most valuable leadership lessons I’ve learned thus far.

  • ladylaff

    I’ve been working on cutting the words “I think” and “I feel” out of written and verbal correspondence. These two small changes have had a very powerful effect –  not only on how I come across to others, but also my own self-confidence. It was quite scary at first, but ultimately liberating.

  • LauraPetrolino biggreenpen Eleanor Pierce TRULY.

  • ladylaff Yes! That’s such a female thing to do. It completely undermines our expertise. Thanks for adding that.

  • prblog You guys rock!

  • ladylaff YES! This makes me think (indirectly) of another destructive behavior. I guess it goes back to Gini’s “listening” in many ways. But it takes SO MUCH PATIENCE to not jump to solutions (or oppositions) during a meeting when everyone needs to let ideas be vetted, even the out of the box ones. We all can cut each other off prematurely, and that hurts everyone.

  • biggreenpen I say that occasionally and have to stop myself. It’s a very Chicago thing to say. It drove me crazy when I first moved here and now I catch myself saying it. Oy.

  • Eleanor Pierce Yeah…sorry to let you in on my secret. But it’s a very valuable tool.

  • LauraPetrolino 🙂 You’re amazing. You have so many strengths that lead to great leadership.

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen It’s one thing to say it occasionally, but some of these people do it almost every sentence (I would say “literally” every sentence but I don’t want to set Laura off). I could swear I have heard Harry Shearer do a whole segment featuring a particularly egregious example.

  • ginidietrich LauraPetrolino What Gini said.

  • LauraPetrolino so true (not about YOU) but about people’s strengths in general…

  • whitney_fay

    I cringed because I know there’s one I say that drives people crazy… Even though I try REALLY hard not to. 

    “Hands down…” when describing my love for stuff.

    “This is hands down my favorite book! Hands down my favorite movie! Hands down my favorite WHATEVER.”

    We get it, Whitney. Your hands are down.

  • whitney_fay LOL!! Now I’m going to make fun of you when you say it.

  • ginidietrich I decided to become a leadership evangelist.

  • ginidietrich whitney_fay I’m surprised “all in” hasn’t made it to this discussion yet. It doesn’t bother me but I saw it recently on someone’s list.

  • ladylaff You make a great point! Kudos to you for realizing that too. It can be challenging to pinpoint what to improve upon without honest feedback from someone and it really is liberating to make that change.

    Your words, and this article, reminds me of an interview with Amy Poehler where she discusses analyzing her own attitudes. I appreciate her goal to talk slower at meetings and feel comfortable taking up “conversational real estate.”

  • My thirteen year-old starts with, “No offense mom, but…” 
    Just stop! I know whatever follows that will offend me!

    And Laura, what is my thing? What of mine do you count on our weekly calls?

  • amybailey LOL! You don’t have a thing. I can confidently answer that. That poor “frankly” client. I finally had to tell him that we kept track. He was self-deprecating about it. Said we should create a drinking game out of it.

  • Howie Goldfarb And why not?

  • biggreenpen Howie Goldfarb RobBiesenbach LOL

  • biggreenpen LauraPetrolino Eleanor Pierce Really painful. That´s why I postpone it! I know, I know Laura won´t agree with me. 😛

  • ginidietrich amybailey Ha! I think I like that client!

  • 526 times? Wow, he was an expert! 🙂
    The “I”. Starting every freaking phrase with “I…”. Rather than telling people how awesome you are as a leader, let them see it with their own eyes!
    The opposite of working 24/7: not working along with your team on important things, delegating your decisions and showing up when it´s all finished and assuming the results. Been there, seen that… a lot.

  • Michelle Hals

    I love your point about emails versus in-person conversations. Earlier in my career, I lobbed a few of those and had some lobbed in my direction. It takes more courage–and time–to pick up the phone or sit down with someone, discuss things and get issues resolved and it’s worth it in the long run.

  • whitney_fay

    ginidietrich I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities because I say it entirely more than is ever necessary.

  • danielschiller

    Follow through!

    The best boss I ever had — now a dear friend — followed through. Beth never let us down, or left us hanging. She was very careful about what she committed to, but once she did you knew to expect it.

    On a funny aside, I once said to myself “Self, this is the last day for X to happen.” Sure enough 🙂

  • ginidietrich I just trademarked #RonL and ROL … Return on Leadership which will focus on how while you can not measure such a thing it is very important. I just got hired to give a talk at the next IBM Social Business Event called LeadershipCon where it is my job to Con big $ out of unsuspecting business leaders.

  • danielschiller You’re a nerd.

  • Michelle Hals It’s SO MUCH easier to send a hard email than have a hard conversation. But email is never the right tool for that kind of stuff.

  • Corina Manea Love that, Corina. Yes! I had a boss who would sit in her office and wait for us to finish working on a project (a new business proposal, for instance) and paint her fingernails or read a book.

  • danielschiller

    ginidietrich – Proudly so.

  • danielschiller I sure do agree with you.

  • ginidietrich Corina Manea oh good lord….

  • danielschiller

    biggreenpen – We all have our “people” don’t we?

  • danielschiller biggreenpen We do.

  • biggreenpen ginidietrich amybailey LOL! I agree with Gini, you don’t have a thing Amy. And you are the most creatively self-depreciating person I’ve ever met. Like the awesome video you made on video production fails!

  • whitney_fay ginidietrich HAHAHA! Whitney we all know your thing is your weekly obit update! “Hands down,” really can’t even complete!

  • Eleanor Pierce ginidietrich LauraPetrolino Wow. What a wonderful comment to come back to at the end of the day. Thank you both so much. That really means so much to me coming from the both of you. More than I can say.

  • biggreenpen ginidietrich Don’t start with me Paula! My head will explode, literally 🙂

  • whitney_fay

    You have to admit, I keep everyone updated on the nation’s untimely deaths.

  • whitney_fay I’m not sure how I would survive without these updates. I probably owe you my life.

  • whitney_fay

    You just never know when you might get swept away in a storm drain or freeze in a parking lot, Laura.

  • whitney_fay BAHAHAHAHAHA! I seriously just snorted! 

    Thank you Whitney. Thank you for saving me with your weekly updates. You should start an enewsletter! “DoomsDay Today”

  • whitney_fay

    Good idea! That will probably work better than this giant “End of Days” sign I’ve had hanging around my neck!

  • whitney_fay LOL!!!

  • Ugh!  With all
    due respect, I frankly do not know how I’ll ever, like, have a conversation
    with you guys again!  Actually, I
    will, but it will literally be awkward! 😉

  • AndyPreisler

    Great post! I have less experience as I have only three bosses in my career and your points about communicating ONLY when you are calm would be a great advice to one of them.
    My personal most hated phrase is “no, offense, but..” that in fact means: “just get ready for thrust!”
    Thanks for article, Gini!

  • lizreusswig RUDE! LOL!

  • AndyPreisler You’re right… that’s exactly what that means!

  • ginidietrich xoxo

  • I thought of another one! “I don’t disagree…”

  • KevinVandever

    I had to read the article to make sure I knew why “so sorry” was on the list. It was as I figured. At first I was afraid Lolly was saying that leaders shouldn’t apologize, but that wasn’t it. Great list. I would add a few to the list, and not just for leaders:

    “net new” — This one does horrible things to my insides.  Please use “new”. I won’t wonder if it’s net or gross. 

    “I’m busy…” It’s probably OK to announce it every so often, but many wear “busy” as a badge. I know folks who walk around and sigh heavily hoping someone will ask what’s wrong so that he or she can jump into the “I’m so busy speech”. You might really be busy, but so are most of those who work for you.

    Showing up late to a meeting and then telling everyone to hurry up because you don’t have much time — Probably enough said there.

  • KevinVandever “I won’t wonder if it’s net or gross.” LOL!! And to your busy and meeting points, don’t call a meeting, show up late, and then keep everyone late. That also drives me crazy.

  • NancyCawleyJean

    Better late than never, I guess, but I LOVED this article! I was thinking of people who I know have used these words or phrases through the years (including me!), and while I was reading I was thinking that this is true in all professional interactions, and then I read your last paragraph… of course you thought the same thing! Thanks for the reminders on what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it takes seeing it in black and white to give us the slap in the face we all need!! Now, would emailing this to someone make them understand that it implies we are gently suggesting they follow your advice? 😉

  • Great stuff…coming from a ‘first-time reader!’ So thanks! 

    I’ve been noticing, more and more, “basically” (as mentioned by RobBiesenbach) and “essentially.” I’m 100% guilty of these and trying to rid myself of them. These words lack confidence.  They have a way of saying, “You know, I’m not 100% on this but let me string a bunch of stuff together and hope you buy it…”   In most cases, I know that isn’t the intent as they get thrust in as filler words. The perception though, even when they are coming out of my mouth, can be damaging.

  • Justin Clifford Those words also say (to me, anyway), “You’re an idiot so let me make this as basic as possible.” Really great add. Thank you! (And welcome, first timer!)

  • NancyCawleyJean It’s the Vulcan mind meld! I have you in my brain! And I think emailing it to someone is probably the nicest way to tell them they need some help.