10 Stale Management Phrases That Need to be Junked in ’21

By Brian O'Connell January 26, 2021

​The workplace has long been an incubator for management catchphrases that produce more eyerolls than inspiration.

What cubicle dweller hasn't experienced a manager issuing maxims like "We don't pay you to think" or "Let's peel the onion"?

Team members have enough on their plates without having to "take a helicopter view" and "think outside the box" on a workplace issue. They just need direct advice on how to do their jobs better—not hackneyed clichés.

Compiled with the help of several seasoned managers and business owners who've seen it all, here are the 10 top management catchphrases that managers should stop using—now.

"Let's be customer-centric." Allison Hartsoe, founder at Ambition Data LLC, a data analytics company in Portland, Ore., said she would like to see the phrase "customer-centric" tossed into the trash in 2021.

"The phrase is classic double-speak in that it sounds so wonderful but can mean almost anything, especially when the term customer is so generic," Hartsoe said. "Ultimately, a new customer should be treated differently than a loyal customer, and a loyal customer has different needs than one who only purchases from you during Black Friday."

"It's the trusted relationships we build—by deeply understanding each customer—that truly make a brand customer-centric," she noted.

"It is what it is." "This phrase is the ultimate in shirking responsibility," said Ty Crandall, CEO at Credit Suite, a business credit firm located in Trinity, Fla. "It's an explanation that explains absolutely nothing."

"When managers say, 'It is what it is', they're really saying that tradition and inertia are more important and more attractive than actually trying to do something about a problem or condition," Crandall noted. "In doing so, we sidestep the more important issue of 'why.' "

When a team member asks why she hasn't received a raise in two years, and a manager answers, "It is what it is," that manager is likely creating frustration instead of properly informing the employee about an issue of significant importance.

"It's annoying and morale-killing," Crandall said. "Instead, managers should reply with an affirmation that the issue is legitimate and that 'We should investigate it and see how we can improve the situation.' "

"It's on my radar." Tracy Cote, chief people officer at Zenefits in San Francisco, has had enough of the "radar" maxim. "We're not submarine technicians," Cote said. "Why not just say, 'I am aware of that'?"

"Let's take a deeper dive." "When did swimming analogies become a business thing?" Cote asks. "Why not just review the issue in more detail?"

"Let's talk offline." For Mark Perlman, founder of The Deal Experts, an online consumer deal-finding platform in Los Angeles, this catchphrase is a significant distraction, especially in team meetings.

"We're always talking online these days, so it doesn't make much sense, and for others in the meeting it can be annoying to hear about talking offline," Perlman said. "A direct 'Let's discuss this later' is easier to understand and gets right to the point."

"We're all in the same boat." "We're actually not in a boat at all, and if we metaphorically were, it's definitely not the same boat," said Amanda Ponzar, chief communications and strategy officer at Creating Healthier Communities in Alexandria, Va. "As many people have pointed out, there's a wide range of yachts, canoes and floaties in the workplace these days."

"Leverage best practices." "No one is 100 percent sure how we 'leverage' anything," Ponzar said. "Additionally, it's hard to actually find best practices, and some thought leaders are now calling them 'promising practices.' "

"It's not rocket science." "Whenever a team or employee is struggling with a task and the manager thinks it should be much easier than it is, one go-to phrase tends to be 'It's not rocket science,' " said John Ross, CEO at Test Prep Insight in Reno, Nev.

"This phrase can be demeaning," Ross said. "Managers use it to express their displeasure with the inefficiency or lack of progress on a task, but in reality, the phrase adds nothing to the conversation except insulting the employee."

"That's for later." The phrase "that's for later" in response to a clearly stated idea or initiative is dismissive, said Michael Sena, founder of Senacea Ltd., a spreadsheet consultancy in London.

Pushing off an idea until an undefined "later" doesn't do any good to the person who said it or the person who heard it.

"The proponent of an idea doesn't get any feedback and gets discouraged from being proactive," Sena said. "The person dismissing it doesn't respond to it in a meaningful way. This phrase should be at least augmented with a more precise description of 'later.' "

"We're not reinventing the wheel here." Managers typically use this catchphrase when staffers are
struggling with a task or attempting to bring something new to the table that a manager doesn't like, said Shonavee Simpson-Anderson, SEO strategist at Firewire Digital, in Newcastle, Australia. 

Simpson-Anderson believes managers should ditch the phrase because it limits people's thinking and innovative desire. "You're essentially telling them to go copy someone else's work or do what's always been done," she said. "It's boring and ineffective. Worst of all, it's inhibiting."

According to Simpson-Anderson, the primary problem with "reinventing the wheel" in 2021 is that it's not based in fact.

"We've just had a year of people looking at their proverbial 'wheel' and reinventing it for a remote world, or in some cases deciding to move on from the wheel altogether," she said. "In a similar fashion, managers should move on from this phrase."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC's Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide.



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