Five Things Well-Meaning Managers Say That Kill Employee Engagement

by | Aug 24, 2022

Darcy Luoma is one of America’s most highly credentialed coaches. She’s worked in 48 industries, with more than 500 organizations, and has impacted tens of thousands of leaders and employees.


Have you ever wished your employees were more engaged with your organization’s mission and values? Most likely, your answer is a resounding “yes!” What leader doesn’t want that?

But here’s the kicker: engaged employees don’t magically happen. As a manager, you need to cultivate engagement. What we’ve seen in our coaching practice is even the most well-intentioned managers often shut down their colleagues, instead of asking them open-ended questions – and listening intently to the answers!

As such, we want to offer you 5 common phrases to avoid in conversations with your employees. For each one, we’ll suggest some thoughtful alternatives.

1. “Let me stop you right there.”

This probably won’t come as a shock, but nothing kills a conversation more than cutting someone off.

Maybe you’re trying to spare your employee from having to go through all the details, as a way of saving their time. Well-intentioned, but it might not come off that way. Look at this from your employee’s perspective for a moment. You’re basically saying you’re not interested in what they have to say – and that you’ve got better things to do with your time. Ouch!

A better option is to give your employee a chance to finish their point. Maybe try asking instead:

  • I’m hearing a lot of details, and I’m curious what’s important about this?
  • In your opinion, what needs to happen here?
  • Can you bottom line this for me?

2. “I know what you’re going to say.”

As you listen carefully to your colleague, you realize you’ve heard comments like this before. You’re aware they’re based on a misunderstanding about your industry, so you step in gently with the intention of helping.

The only thing is: perhaps your colleague has information you don’t. Or perhaps they’re going in a completely different direction than you were expecting. You might assume they’re coming to you to fix their problem, when in fact they want to get feedback on some possible solutions they’ve already developed. So even if it feels like you’re going to save them time by cutting to the chase, you might be missing their larger point.

This is an opportunity to engage in active listening and ask some questions to get clear on what they’re looking for from you.

Try the following instead:

  • I’ve heard similar thoughts to this. What’s your perspective?
  • How can I be helpful here?
  • This is what I heard you say. What did I miss?

3. “Keep talking. I can multitask.”

Your intention here is most likely to convey to your employee that you’re available, while still finishing the email you’re typing. It’s understandable you want to give energy to both tasks, as both are important.

However, your attempts to do justice to both things at once often has the opposite effect. Put another way, by multitasking, it’s likely you won’t listen especially well to your employee, nor write a particularly lucid email. Research has found that multitasking is technically impossible.

If your intention is to be available to your staff, then do your best to focus on your employee – without multitasking.

If it’s not possible to give them your undivided attention, then try one of these:

  • I’m in the middle of something, and so I’m curious, on a scale of 1 to 10 how urgent is this?
  • I want to be able to focus on what you have to say, and I’m just finishing an important email. Is there a good time later today we can talk about this?
  • I actually don’t have a minute right now. Can we connect on this after lunch?

4. “Don’t worry about it.”

Has being told not to worry about something ever eliminated worry? Probably not. And unless your employee has openly said they’re anxious, you might even be assuming something they’re not feeling.

If your colleague expresses concern, resist the urge to jump in with a solution. Create space for them to voice their feelings, and do what you can to better understand what they’re experiencing.

Try asking:

  • I get the sense you’re worried. How are you feeling about the situation?
  • What’s the worst-case scenario here?
  • What do you have control of? What is outside of your control?
  • What do you need?

5. “Here’s what you should do.”

Leaders often assume they need to fix any problems people present them with. But that’s not always the case.

Working with employees to help them solve their own problems not only keeps the responsibility where it belongs, but also shows you care about developing their skills.

Unless your employee is directly asking you to tell them what they should do, try taking a coach approach and ask them some of these questions instead:

  • Where are you stuck?
  • What are your options?
  • What do you know won’t work?
  • What is one step you could take?

Key takeaway

Whatever the nature of the people problems you’re having, you can be sure your employees have an important role to play in solving them.

In any organization, culture begins at the top. So, if you want your team to engage more, you’ll need to listen to them, thoughtfully. This is a conscious decision that requires Strength. You might not control the situation that led to this conversation with your employee, but you can control how you respond to it.

Getting into the habit of engaging with employees emotionally is not something that happens overnight. Just like building physical muscles, this is something you’ll need to train over time.One-minute-workout

To build the habit of engagement, try the following core workout the next time an employee comes to you with a problem.

  • Pause: Take a few seconds to center yourself and reflect.
  • Think: What culture are you trying to build? What would you want, if you were in your employee’s shoes? What are your choices?
  • Act: Lead from your core with the new awareness you’ve just created.
2 minute quiz