In speaking with a number of managers and my executive coaching clients, it turns out I'm not alone. Nearly everyone admitted to reacting negatively to these job-shredding phrases:
1. "There's nothing I can do." Really? You've exhausted every possible solution? This is similar to when my six-year-old says she's looked everywhere for her shoes. When you say that there is nothing you can do, we learn two things about you: You're a liar, and you're lazy -- two qualities that are not going to help you get a raise or even keep your job. We know you are lying because there is always something you can do. And in the remote chance that there really isn't anything you can do, at least tell us everything you've done, what you intend to keep trying, or who you intend to go to who actually can do something. Nobody with a spine has ever uttered these words. By using this phrase, it shows that you are weak, give up easily, and lack all creativity and effectiveness. You don't get paid to be ineffective or lazy, so stop using this horrible phrase.
2. "It's not fair." If you find yourself saying this, grow up. Little Joey doesn't have to share his Tonka truck with you. Of course things aren't fair. It's not fair that millions of young boys and girls are kidnapped or sold into sex slavery each year or that hundreds of millions of people don't have enough to eat. If you are complaining about something trivial, it sounds like you are whining. And who hates whiners? Everyone, including your boss.
3. "That's impossible." There are two kinds of employees -- those who make things happen and those who come up with excuses about why things didn't happen. You don't want to be among the latter. These folks love to discourage creativity and ideas. If it hasn't been done, the thinking goes, then it is not possible. Stop asking if it is possible, and instead start asking how it can be possible. Even if it doesn't work, at least you will be seen as somebody willing to take risks and persevere.
4. "I wish..." When your boss hears you say this, the first thing she is thinking is, "I wish I'd hired someone else." Don't wish, want, or hope anything. As a leader, you go out there and make things happen. You take responsibility and control of the situation. You certainly don't sit back and wish for change. Leaders are drivers, not passengers hoping good things happen. Wishing makes you look lazy and/or ineffective. Your boss wants you to stop talking about what you hope would happen and start making something happen.
5. "But we've always done it that way." Nothing evokes the thought "I've got to fire this guy" quite like this phrase. In one fell swoop you are basically announcing that you are uncreative, lazy, close-minded, inflexible, and ineffective. The managers I've talked to said this is probably the phrase they hear most and the one above all others that gets their blood to boil. Do yourself and the unemployment rate a favor and stop using this phrase.
These are just a handful of phrases that can get you in hot water at work. But can they really get you fired? Absolutely! It's because they expose a deeper malady. In an economy where employers need to be creative and do more with less, employees who use these phrases will be replaced with those who have a better attitude and can get the job done.