Human Performance and Achievement Resources
red line
Home Articles & Publications Directories Link Directories Topics Directory Search
Article: Four Things You Should Never Say To Your Employee Related Resources

Four Things You Should Never Say To Your Employee
by Marlene Chism

How do you turn a complainer into a problem solver? How do you stay abreast of problems on the front line, get the employees to let you in on the inside scoop without encouraging them to tattle or criticize? There are four knee-jerk responses that you may be operating from without awareness. These statements are sure to award you the title "unapproachable" and the result will be low moral, as you are rendered clueless to that inside world of your employees. Look at the list below as if you were taking a test. How many times have you said:

• "There's nothing I can do."
• "It's always been that way."
• "No one else is complaining."
• "If you don't like it, find another place to work."

Why would a manager use any of these statements? Basically because she feels powerless and it gets rid of the complaining employee--especially when there is no known solution in sight. It works as a quick fix, ending the discomfort momentarily but at a high price. Before using these statements again in the future ask yourself these questions?

• Am I solving problems by making this statement?
• Am I respecting my employee as someone to be valued?
• Am I representing myself as someone who is open and approachable?
• Do I sound defensive or self-righteous?
• Am I empowering this employee to take an active or a passive role?

When employees complain, there is a better way. Begin by using communication to empower employees to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

"There's nothing I can do."

When you say to your complaining employee, "There's nothing I can do," you are really communicating, "there is nothing I am willing to do." Don't expect to keep abreast of problems in your department if that is your mantra. Why should an employee ever come to you if your response is "there's nothing I can do?" A more empowering approach is to ask a question: "What do you see as some opportunities to address this problem?" That gives the impression that you are considering their thoughts and feelings and entering into partnership to find a solution. What is the answer for those employees that like to vent? How do you support their viewpoints without encouraging them to constantly pound on your door with some complaint? To reduce this tendency, you must make them accountable in a non-threatening way. Ask for their input or suggest another meeting with the expectation that they come up with at least a part of the solution. The result is a more thoughtful employee who is willing to consider solutions before ever presenting problems. Avoid the inclination to let the situation hang without another meeting. Set a time for the next meeting and follow up as you would with any other professional. Don't slam the door by saying, " There's nothing I can do."

"It's always been that way."

The statement, "It's always been that way," suggests the current situation, even if it is less than satisfactory will be accepted as a standard of mediocrity. It is a poor excuse and strips the employee of hope or empowerment--besides, it is a lazy argument. (That kind of reasoning didn't work for the women's movement or for keeping slavery in place.) History reminds us that it's natural to look for better ways and yet at the same time most of us resist change unless it benefits us. If the employee complains about a particular situation it's because he believes some change might make the situation more beneficial. Make sure you as their leader is not the one who is resisting positive change.

Leaders, who move up from the bottom, often forget what it's like and falsely assume that working conditions are the same for their subordinates as they were for them. In reality, several things have probably changed. People are doing more with less, or the time has changed or demands have increased, thus it's a false statement to say, "It's always been that way." Be willing to admit that you are simply unaware of the changes. One way to gain more insight is to ask for examples as to how things have changed for the better and for the worse. This teaches employees to develop critical and objective thinking. It is also a way to unite with your subordinate by talking about the changes and how some changes are subtle and hard to recognize unless you are directly in the position it affects.

Even if you haven't heard a complaint from anyone else, resist the inclination to condemn the employee by suggesting that he is the only one with a problem. Realize he may be the only one with enough courage to confront the problem and there may be others who wish they knew how to complain.

"No one else is complaining"

Although no one else has stepped forward to complain, it really doesn't mean anything. Someone has to be the first to register a complaint. Instead of saying, "Well you're the only one complaining, I haven't heard a peep from anyone else," A better response is, "Do others feel the same way?" Make sure you ask the question in a curious and non-judgmental way by monitoring your tone and facial expression.

Isn't it better to really know what your employees think than to put your head in the sand? One example from the production lines comes to mind: The department was in a transition, waiting for a new automatic stacker that was designed to handle the stacking and wrapping of two production lines. In the meantime, one worker handled the demands of two lines while for over a year they waited for the ‘robot.' The pallets came out every 10 minutes and by the time worker was able to wrap, tag and pull another skid down to begin the stacking, there were about 15 boxes piled up and ready to jam in the code-dater. It's through transitions that often the small changes create a ripple effect that goes unnoticed by management, but becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camels back. Throughout this conversion several other small changes had occurred and there were no provisions put into place to monitor the effects on the employees. The roller ramp that the boxes slid down had been shortened about 15 feet, the wooden skids were now made with oak instead of pine, thus making them heaver to maneuver. There was a shortage of forklift drivers and one person was stacking two converged lines instead of one person per line. Often the worker even had to pull the skid from the line with a forklift. (Heaven forbid if anyone took the extra forklift.) Eventually a woman named Janice had an idea for a partial solution and the confidence to approach the foreman about the situation. Unfortunately Janice got stomped with one of his three favorite aphorisms: "No one else is complaining." Although this was certainly true, the foreman was oblivious to the fact that another employee, was going home every evening, soaking in a tub, loading herself with medicine and going straight to bed. She was afraid to complain. Just a few months later, the same employee was off because of headaches and tendonitis. The tendency to avoid the problem by getting rid of the complaining worker resulted in lost time from another injured employee. What a shame that the complaint wasn't investigated or handled correctly. Perhaps the reason no one else complained is because they knew what they would hear: "If you don't like it, find another place to work."

"If you don't like it find another place to work."

With the massive changes occurring in the workplace, compounded with the low unemployment rate, the practical solution isn't telling employees to hit the road. Other than the fact that this kind of statement lacks creativity; it's just plain rude. It reeks of disrespect and suggests that you don't care about your employee. I know of one particular example where the statement was similar: "I didn't ask you to work here." Often these kinds of statements are said in anger or sarcasm and justified by some statement like, "well it's the truth."

The kind of logic that justifies these kinds of statements is the same kind of logic that says grub worms are edible. In other words, (just because something is edible, doesn't mean you want to eat it.) Just because something is true doesn't mean it's relevant to the situation. When in doubt, use the five-point checklist. You fail if you can't pass every one.

• Am I solving problems by making this statement? • Am I respecting my employee as someone to be valued? • Am I representing myself as someone who is open and approachable? • Do I sound defensive or self-righteous? • Am I empowering this employee to take an active or a passive role?

If you want employees to take ownership it's up to you as their leader to empower them to take responsibility. They have to be comfortable confronting problems and coming up with potential solutions. You have the power to help them find the solutions, articulate the changes and develop the courage to point out what everyone else is thinking. When you create this kind of work climate, you'll increase your own awareness, find workable solutions and you won't have to tell them to find another place to work because they will be too valuable right where they are.

Marlene Chism works with companies that want to stop the drama so that teamwork and productivity can thrive. To get free resources to help you increase productivity and build work relationships go to or call 1. 888.434.9085 for more information.

Marlene Chism may be contacted at


Home Articles & Publications Directories Link Directories Topics Directory Specialized Interest Directories Performance & Productivity Blog Search

Website and contents ©1997-2011 C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. (Except where otherwise noted. Articles and content from other contributors are copyright to their respective authors.) All rights reserved.