Mincing words might not be a bad thing after all. While there’s a wealth of information telling managers how to give feedback, what not to say is just as important.
Every employee is unique, and some of this will come down to their preferences and the way you approach the conversation. After all, constructive feedback should always be a two-way discussion. Here are some phrases to avoid so these conversations go smoothly.
1. “Always” or “never.”
Our guide to performance reviews touches on this, but it’s worth repeating. We all go into reviews knowing that, to some extent, our work will be criticized. Even the most supportive conversation can make employees feel vulnerable or a little uncomfortable. Broad, sweeping phrases like “always” or “never” only ramp up that feeling.
Instead, identify what you’re actually trying to say. For example, maybe you’ve noticed a pattern. Maybe an employee is inconsistent with deadlines. Tell them you’ve noticed that they’re usually great about timeliness and ask what behaviors helped them find that success, or what they’re struggling with when they’re late. This opens the door for them to share any issues they’re running into and can help you find solutions together.
2. “Do it like this.”
It’s one thing to offer suggestions if an employee asks. It’s different (and potentially patronizing) to provide unsolicited directives or talk about how you would handle a situation. In fact, “do it like this” has been identified by EQ expert Justin Bariso as a phrase emotionally intelligent people avoid. Remember that an employee’s approach to something isn’t wrong just because you would do it differently.
Instead, start with questions to identify what your employee is struggling with. If you’ve been through a similar situation, ask if they’re open to hearing how you dealt with it. While they might have a valid reason why they can’t do what you did, you’re still working together to find a solution.
3. “Everyone has noticed that...”
This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when giving feedback. Nothing will make an employee feel attacked like being told “everyone” feels a certain way. While you may need to address how an employee’s behavior impacts others, don’t bring peers into the conversation unless absolutely necessary.
Instead, craft your feedback in a way that conveys the issue without making employees feel like coworkers have been complaining about them. Consider saying something along the lines of, “When you’re behind on your deadlines, it impacts the team’s ability to be successful in presentations.”
4. “But so-and-so can...”
Here’s a common scenario: While one member of your team seems to be struggling, others with the same workload are doing fine. Don’t compare an employee to their peers during a review. This consistently ranks as something bosses should never do during reviews because it only alienates employees, fosters resentment, and makes problems worse.
Instead, if an employee can’t handle their workload, ask them what’s going on. It’s possible that they’re just unclear on expectations or they’re working on a project you don’t have visibility into. Whatever the case, you can find out why your employee isn’t handling their workload gracefully and help them figure out the best path forward.
5. “Everything is great.”
Don’t get us wrong: Giving praise is important and you should be doing so consistently. That said, appreciation isn’t necessarily the same as feedback. Performance reviews are a time for employees to take stock and set goals. When they hear nothing but positive reinforcement, it can be a letdown for employees looking for ways to develop.
Instead, use reviews to help employees identify what’s next and how to get there. Perhaps they want to grow with the company or develop new skills. Maybe an upcoming project provides them with the perfect opportunity to get started. Even if you don’t have a lot of concrete feedback, you should at least be able to have a motivating, goal-oriented conversation.
As a manager, your words matter — especially when giving feedback or conducting a performance review. By avoiding these troublesome phrases, you can minimize negative responses, deliver more impactful feedback, and help employees grow into stronger, more confident members of the team.
Looking to improve your approach to employee feedback? For more advice, read our Ultimate Guide to Feedback.