The Words and Behaviors that Undermine LeadershipI’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.

(And some of my leadership team has worked with him, as well.)

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?

In fact, if you’re a client, you’ve heard this from me…even though I’m not your leadership coach.

There are some behaviors and words we all use that undermine our ability to communicate.

And it is my job to point that out. Hence, I become a communications leadership joy to be around.

Seven Fatal Phrases

But it’s not just me.

A few years ago, Lolly Daskal wrote an article titled Seven Fatal 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 literally explode….hahahaahaha).

There are a few of my own I’d like 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.” (You can also put “honestly” and “to be perfectly honest” in here.)
  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 to lead an organization.
  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.”. It doesn’t work. I know because I am guilty of it.
  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.
  7. Basically. This and “essentially” tell the person that you think they’re an idiot so you’re going to make it as basic for them as possible. While most use it as a filler word, it doesn’t come across that way to the person receiving the message.
  8. I don’t disagree. This one also makes me want to go postal. It automatically puts people on the defensive. What’s wrong with saying, “I agree, and…”?

Behaviors that Undermine Leadership

There also are certain behaviors that undermine leadership.

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 11 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 use Boomerang so emails arrive in their inboxes 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. The 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?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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