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6 phrases that managers need to use more often

Published 6th September 2017 by Investors in People
Line manager language to use at work

Choosing the right words to motivate, inspire and get the best performance out of your employees is a key line management skill. Is it simply just a case of being very clear in what you say? We think that clarity is certainly key, but that there are universal phrases that can dramatically improve the relationship between line manager and employee, build mutual trust, shared expectations and higher performance.

We’ve picked six of these phrases: take a look below and see if you agree.

“Think about it and let me know.”

This phrase is very important because it tells employees that you don’t always expect them to make decisions right away. Research suggests that creativity, innovation and quality decision-making require incubation time to be optimal. How much incubation time is needed depends on the nature of the problem and the personalities of the people involved.

By giving employees space to incubate ideas and problems, you are encouraging solutions that are based on logic and a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand, rather than speed. This is a good way to encourage higher performance. It also gives less assertive employees a chance to give feedback via alternative means, such as email.

“I’m not sure yet, but I’ll come back to you.”

The idea behind this phrase is to show direct reports it’s fine to not know the answer to something: this discourages them from hiding perceived shortcomings and covering up capability gaps.

Research suggests that creativity, innovation and quality decision-making require incubation time to be optimal.

To be honest with line managers, employees must feel that being human is natural and encouraged within the organisation. By using this phrase, line managers mark themselves as human, and therefore legitimise these feelings among their team.

“Am I being unclear?”

The curse of knowledge is an unfortunate bias: when we are experts at something, it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in the place of someone who doesn’t know what we know. Therefore, it’s hard to know where to start with helping them develop their own understanding of the topic. It’s easy to use complex language and jargon and fail to pare back the material to the simplest concepts.

To compound the problem, people do not want to admit they don’t understand something you’re telling them, for fear of being seen as stupid.

This question helps mitigate against the curse of knowledge by forcing you to think more deeply and rephrase if they don’t understand what you’re saying, but also puts the potential blame on you rather than them (i.e. it’s you being unclear, rather than them just not getting it. This can encourage them to speak up).

If your employees don’t understand a project or an idea to a sufficient level, it can be difficult to create shared expectations, which can lead to a breakdown of trust and poor performance. That’s why this question is so important.

“Is the process/way of doing things here optimal for you?”

People work optimally in different ways, which means they require different approaches from their line manager to thrive.

Some people, for example, like to be developed through light-touch delegation, where they are encouraged to go off and learn through experimentation, with occasional check-ins to make sure nothing is going awry.

For others, this lack of structure is unbearable and they require much more frequent check-ins, with clear discrete tasks and scaffolded learning.

“What do you think?”

We want active followers at work, not passive followers: managers don’t have all the answers and we need employees to speak up, offer opinions and constructive criticism and generally use their knowledge and skills to continuously improve the way things are done.

If your employees don’t understand a project or an idea to a sufficient level, it can be difficult to create shared expectations.

This question helps create a culture of openness and respect for the views of others and encourages employees to think critically in the workplace, without fear of consequence.

Of course, it’s vitally important that any suggestions off the back of this question are treated with respect. If they are ignored or ridiculed, employees won’t answer this question truthfully, no matter how much you ask them.

“What do you want my role to be on this?”

Without asking this question, managers have to make an educated guess at what level of involvement their direct reports want them to have on each project or task.

This is generally done based on what the manager perceives the employee’s competence in that specific area to be. They then delegate in one of approximately nine ways, with varying degrees of autonomy given to the employee and varying expectations around timeframes and reporting requirements.

But if the manager has misinterpreted the employee’s confidence, their approach to delegation may come across as patronising, mistrustful, overbearing, or uncaring. By simply asking employees what level of delegation they are most comfortable with for each individual or task, both sides can be assured that expectations are aligned, leading to improved trust and better outcomes.