Five things you should never say as a manager (plus better things to say)

‘Don’t bring me problems, give me solutions.’ is a phrase that leaders often say in meetings. A big problem, says innovation expert Simone van Neerven, as with these couple of words, leaders close themselves off for critical signals. And there are more things leaders say that block openness in their team.

A miraculous rescue

On October 13, 2013, the entire world held its breath for a moment. A billion people are glued to the TV and watch as 33 miners, who have been trapped in a Chilean mine at great depths for almost seventy days, are lifted out one by one. Even though there was less than a 1% chance that the operation would succeed, they all made it out alive.

It was the result of a unique drilling technique. Remarkably, neither NASA nor any other respectable organisation developed that drilling technique. It was 24-year-old Igor Proestakis, part of the rescue team and tasked with the logistics of the drilling equipment, who came up with the idea.

Proestakis believed there was a cleverer way to drill and told one of the other team members. Instead of being ridiculed, that team member helped Proestakis present his idea to the right people. André Sougarret, who led the rescue operation, wanted to try it out. It proved to be the most effective and efficient drilling method, successfully freeing the miners in less time than expected.

Proestakis’ audacity in speaking up and Sougarret’s leadership in encouraging the group to keep an open mind to novel concepts, even when they appeared absurd or unfeasible, were crucial factors in the operation’s success.

The 5 things you should never say

Numerous studies show that to achieve better solutions, a diversity of insights, perspectives, and ideas leads to the best results. Even if a new idea turns out to be complete nonsense, it still makes the final solution better.

For this reason, it is crucial to be open to diverse perspectives. To foster openness in your team, these five sentences are off-limits:

#1: “Does anyone have any questions or comments?”

After a presentation, when someone asks for questions or comments, there is rarely any response. That is because that question implies that the conversation or meeting is ending. If you are open to suggestions to improve your presentation, ask, “Did I miss something?” or “Is there anything you would have done differently and why?”

#2: "Do not bring me problems, give me solutions"

You do not want your team to complain, so you ask your team to bring solutions instead of problems. But this also closes you off to things that could potentially be quite significant.

Some people are incredibly gifted at identifying problems – much earlier than others – but may not have the imagination to bring a good solution. Or the problem is complex and requires you to pause and consider your options thoroughly before concluding. If you truly strive for continuous improvement, say: “I would like to hear from you so we can work on the solution together.”

#3: “My door is always open”

If, as a manager, you say that your door is always open, this is usually a sign that it is not. Why are you saying it? Because nobody comes to you? If you want people to share their concerns, irritations, insights, or ideas with you, it is better to say: “How can I help you make your job better or easier?”

#4: "We will consider it"

Other variations are “I hear what you are saying” or “With all due respect”. All of these remarks are taken as a rejection and imply that you dismiss the suggestion without giving it any thought. If you seriously want to consider the suggestion but do not have enough time, come up with a specific proposal: “Shall we talk about this later, say at half past three this afternoon?”

#5: "Everyone must be on the same page"

It means that you are seeking consensus and want everyone to agree. Apart from the fact that consensus usually means that the quality of the solution decreases, you also make it pretty hard for someone with an opposing view to speak up. If you are the only one with a different opinion, you need lots of guts to speak up for what you believe in.

The only thing that the team needs to agree upon, is the process of handling disagreements. This way everyone understands how decisions are taken, even though not everyone supports the idea. Therefore, it is preferable to say: “I would like to hear from everyone and let us agree on how we will make decisions.”

The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea

If you want to arrive at better solutions or decisions, consider a range of perspectives. The more diverse, the better. However, diversity does not make things easier and can lead to conflicts. It helps tremendously if all team members show genuine understanding and refrain from passing judgment too quickly.

Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher, once said: “One of the hardest lessons to accept is that people who don’t agree with you are not flaming idiots.”

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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