Seven Deadly Words or Phrases to Avoid When Aligning Expectations with an Employee

George Carlin, an American comedian, once did a monologue about seven deadly words that radio stations should never broadcast – I’ll let you guess which words made the list. Carlin was right, those words are “bad news”— whether on the radio or in the workplace. In the context of managing employees, there are seven additional deadly words or phrases that should never be uttered when seeking to align an employee’s expectations.

These seven deadly words/phrases are:

  • Sure
  • Okay
  • Right
  • Sounds good
  • We’ll see
  • Very well
  • Fair enough

Wait. These words are innocuous, right? They aren’t even close to the words on Carlin’s list. How can these possibly get a manager into trouble?

Well, in an employment context, it often isn’t the words we actually use that matter, it’s what we don’t say that causes the problems. Unspoken words in critical contexts may represent expectations that are becoming misaligned. For example, an employee may never really know what his manager meant when she responded with “sure” as she walked out of a meeting that had been called to discuss the need for additional resources.

In building a great Employee Experience for your team or organization, expectation alignment is the cure to what we call EAD – Expectation Alignment Dysfunction. EAD is a serious workplace disorder, impacting millions of employees and leaders each year. EAD occurs when a manager or organization leaves a significant void in the communication process. When this type of a void remains open, employees inevitably fill it with their own set of expectations, whether reasonable or not.

Remember that with employees, it isn’t so much whether the answer is A or B; it is more important that one scenario consistently yields A, and the other scenario typically means B. Our research suggests that consistency matters most; employees want expectations that are aligned and reasonably met.

Here is a common example to serve as a cautionary allegory. An employee finally musters the courage to ask her manager for a pay raise. Her name is Ellen. Ellen is a talented software developer and has been with her current employer for just over two years. Ellen has consistently received strong performance reviews and has been recognized on several occasions as a strong asset to her team. Ellen recently found out through a friend that Jackson, a colleague on Ellen’s team with similar strengths and tenure, makes $10,000 more in annual salary than Ellen.

So, after a few weeks of “stewing” on the matter, Ellen walks into her manager’s office and politely expresses her concerns. Her manager patiently listens, and he even sympathizes with Ellen. He then says, “Let me see what I can do.”  Ellen leaves invigorated. She gathered the courage to talk to her manager, the conversation went well, and she felt like her manager really listened to her.

On the other side of the door, Ellen’s manager, Steve, starts to panic. Steve is sympathetic to Ellen’s requests. She is a great employee, and he doesn’t like gender pay gaps, anyway.  Most pressing is that he can’t afford to have Ellen “looking elsewhere.”  But, Steve also knows that their company recently instituted a hiring freeze along with a 2% cap on pay increases. He might be able to do something for Ellen, but he has no idea whether he can make it work. Feeling the panic start to rise in his throat, he hurriedly tells Ellen, “Let me see what I can do.”

Uh oh!  We have a strong case of EAD starting to metastasize, with the challenge that Ellen is already thinking about her dream vacation she can now afford once she gets the salary increase Steve promised to give her. Yet, did Steve promise anything?  Not really. Instead, he used one of the seven deadly words/phrases listed above because he wasn’t properly trained on how to handle EAD.

Let’s review five potential treatment options that managers and organizations might use to combat EAD.

  1. Take the temperature. Taking the temperature means listening and asking questions to make sure you understand what is really happening. Steve did a pretty good job at this with Ellen, but he failed to follow through with some of the other treatment options listed below.
  2. Cross-check expectations. With this option, both sides of the expectation equation are openly discussed. In Steve’s case, he should have explained the limitations he is facing and how these might impact his ability to help Ellen. Also, he could have asked Ellen if she would be willing to give him a reasonable amount of time to look for and present possible solutions (e.g., even if isn’t an immediate pay raise, maybe he can promise Ellen a raise that will take place in 6 months or the chance to work on an exciting new project while he takes the time to address the gender pay gap issue at a broader level).
  3. Do some cultural pruning. Cultural pruning is the process of minimizing or excising aspects of your culture that encourage harmful expectations or cause emotional damage. Steve needs to visit with senior leaders about the challenge he is facing (Ellen’s case in point) when it comes to the organization’s real (or perceived) gender pay gap.
  4. Use intentional language. Using intentional language is our allegory’s main point. Don’t use words that leave open even the possibility for a misunderstanding! It would have been better for Steve to say something like, “I can’t promise I will be successful, but I will look into what I can do.” “I have told you about the limitations I face, but I will make this a priority.” “I will get back to you in three weeks with a proposal.”
  5. Monitor known (and unspoken) expectations. A leader has to be vigilant in this area. No letup is allowed.  Now that Steve is aware of Ellen’s concerns, he needs to realize that she will likely talk to her coworkers, and they will be sympathetic to Ellen. They are now sitting, waiting on the sidelines to see if Steve keeps his promises. Steve now has bucket of other expectations to align – expectations that weren’t even part of the original conversation.

While all five of the treatment options are important, monitoring your use of the seven deadly words/phrases will help you use intentional language more often. Most of us can relate to the frustration that arises when you think there has been a meeting of the minds because someone uttered “sure” or “fair enough,” but only to realize later they were being sympathetic to your position as opposed to expressing clear, unequivocal agreement.

So, as leaders and managers, we need to avoid the seven deadly words/phrases if we suspect, even in the slightest, there might be expectation misalignment. If you hear yourself saying “sounds good” when dealing with a sensitive issue, think of red flags strongly blowing in the breeze. Stop and ask yourself if you are: (i) ready to agree with the employee; (ii) what might prevent you from following through on any promises being created; (iii) what expectations (reasonable or not) might be formed in the eyes of the employee?

And, for those on the other side of the table, don’t stop with a simple “right” if you are looking for clear agreement or actual approval. You need to keep probing until you know that a meeting of the minds has taken place, and that both parties’ expectations are understood and properly aligned.

Consider the difference it would have made in our story if Steve had effectively deployed these five treatment options instead of panicking. Rather than having an employee anticipating a pay raise in a few weeks, he would have the time he needs to try and craft a reasonable solution.  And, while Ellen wouldn’t be as happy as she would have been if the raise took place right away, she likely will be satisfied because Steve was open and clear, and he hasn’t allowed her expectations to become misaligned with his actual ability to help her.

As our allegory suggests, taking the time to use intentional language to align expectations may mean the difference between keeping a key employee or having to find time to draft a job description for a position that just came open!


Further Reading: “Stop Blaming Millennials for Unrealistic Employee Expectations”

Author’s note:  To anyone on my team that is reading this. Yes, I know that I am not perfect in this regard! So, I ask you to help me be better at using intentional language so that we can keep our expectations better aligned.

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