Phrases to Say to Demotivate Your Teams

There is this one phrase that can quickly demotivate people. I’ve seen a number of executives use this phrase in several conversations I’ve had. It doesn’t matter whether I’m an engineer, a manager, or a director. Neither does location matter – I’ve heard it in multiple offices around the world. 

And whenever this phrase gets uttered by senior executives or leads, I immediately get deflated. And I also notice people around me get deflated when they hear it, too. I could see it from their body language or their eyes when we share glances. 

What is that phrase, you might ask?

“Well, you and the team will just have to work smarter.”

It doesn’t matter whether the meeting is a 1:1, a team meeting, or an all-hands. Most often, the topic covered is a pretty meaty one. It could be about a newly-announced initiative that the teams will now have to do – aside from stuff currently on their plate. Or it could be about issues relating to how teams or departments work and interact with each other.

In short – it’s usually about problems that the teams can’t solve because they don’t have the influence to affect the actual solution. It needs input from you, the exec. And some empathy.

office worker slumped on desk

The Reactions

And that is what precisely deflates me when I hear that phrase – I don’t hear any empathy. I feel that I have not been heard at all at that moment. I took the time to explain our predicament or what I’ve already looked into solving that quandary. Uttering the phrase comes off as dismissive.

Not all executives say this, of course. But the ones that do not only damage peoples’ morale, but also damage their relationship with their team. The damage may not be that great the first time around. But when an exec uses that phrase several times, the lack of empathy from that response slowly chips away at the foundations of what could potentially have been a high-performing team.

There’s also a second, quick follow-up phrase that further deflates the team or me. 

“You’re a bunch of smart people (engineers). You figure it out.”

Well, to put it politely, I’ve already done my homework prior to bringing the topic up. I’m a knowledge worker whose primary skill is to think about and solve problems. The team and I are telling you, Mr/Ms/They executive, “We’ve hit a roadblock and need some of your help.”

What I Need From You

As I stated previously, one of the first things that the team or I need from an executive is empathy, an acknowledgment that we have a problem. We all are knowledge workers who had put a lot of time and effort into figuring things out before we even brought this issue to your attention.

The second thing the team and I need from you, the executive, is lack of judgment. Saying that second phrase, “You figure it out,” comes off as judgemental, implying that the team or I didn’t do our work beforehand. Are we or am I suddenly not performing in that instance?

The third thing that I and the team need is honesty. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. But I do hope you to be truthful and not dance around possible solutions for the sake of giving one. We also expect you to tell us if you can provide some help – any help – in some way or form. Remember – you have influence that none of us have, which is why we are bringing this issue up. 

In the end, my team and I are more than just resources (another deflating term) in your organization. We are people. Treat us as people, not as resources.