10 things smart CEOs would NEVER say

There are some things that workers should never, ever, ever say in the office. But when you are the CEO, and all eyes are on you, you need to be more careful than most.

What may seem like a harmless phrase could be interpreted as something quite different and may even have catastrophic effects on your workplace environment. To avoid unnecessary dramas, Dr. Travis Bradberry has collated a list of ‘Things Smart People Won’t Say’, and we have conveniently translated it into a list of things CEOs should never say to keep you business leaders in the clear.



Bradberry states that, “no matter how talented you are or what you’ve accomplished, there are certain phrases that instantly change the way people see you and can forever cast you in a negative light. These phrases are so loaded with negative implications that they undermine careers”.

So if you want to avoid potentially stuffing up your own career, have a read through this list of dangerous phrases …and then remove them from your vocabulary ASAP.


1. “It’s not fair”

Firstly, this is the classic call of a stroppy three year old who couldn’t buy the latest stuffed toy. It sounds childish and immature because everyone knows that life isn’t fair, so “saying it’s not fair suggests that you think life is supposed to be fair” demonstrating that you definitely do not have your feet planted firmly on the ground and probably that you have some overwhelming sense of entitlement.

For example, instead of throwing a ‘tanty’ about missing out on a sale, be proactive. Ask for feedback and seek out ways you can improve yourself and better your chances of getting that opportunity next time.

SWAP IT FOR: “I understand your decision, but it would be great to have some feedback so I can better myself for future projects”.


2. “This is the way it’s always been done”

In our inbound marketing world this phrase is an absolute no-no. To keep up with the times, your processes, methodology and plan of attack needs to evolve on a monthly, weekly and sometimes daily basis. Stating this phrase “makes you sound lazy and resistant to change”, as well as naïve to the industry you are working in.

SWAP IT FOR: “I think it is time to jazz up this process”.


3. “No problem”

I am such a sucker for saying this, as it seems like such a simple, harmless phrase. However, by saying that something is ‘no problem’ you are actually implying that their request should have been a problem which may make them “feel as though they have imposed upon you”. Rather than slinging this phrase about, swap it in for something that demonstrates your willingness to help out, like ‘it’s my pleasure’. Showing that you are open to assist your staff members will make them value you and sets a great example.

SWAP IT FOR: “Sure, I am more than happy to take care of that”.


4. “I think … / This may be a silly idea … / I’m going to ask a stupid question…”

In business, you would never dream of underselling a product so you should apply the rules to yourself. Using “overly passive phrases instantly erodes your credibility” and shows that you lack confidence – a terrible characteristic for any CEO. By holding a position of authority you should have faith in your ideas and pitch them to your team with passion and conviction.

SWAP IT IN FOR: “I have an idea”, “I have a question".

NOTE: If you really don’t know something, don’t bluff. Instead, simply say, ‘I don’t have that information right now, but I will find out and get right back to you’.


5. “This will only take a minute”

The first reason why you should never say this is because it is almost always a lie. Very rarely does anything actually take a minute, so don’t pretend that it will. Over promising often just sets you up for failure and you will disappoint whoever you made this ill-informed promise to. Alternatively, by saying to one of your staff that a task you have just set them will ‘only take a minute’ puts immense pressure on them and prevents them from spending good quality time on the task as they will automatically rush it.

SWAP IT FOR: A realistic estimate of how much time it is going to take.


6. “They are lazy / incompetent / a jerk”

I am pretty sure that there has been no occasion where a CEO ‘dobbing someone in’ or bad-mouthing a colleague has benefited that leader. This is simply because if someone really is lazy, incompetent or a jerk then there will be no need to say it out loud, because everyone will already know.

Bradberry argues that “announcing your colleague’s incompetence comes across as an insecure attempt to make you look better. Your callousness will inevitably come back to haunt you in the form of your coworkers’ negative opinions of you”.

Instead of conducting a character assassination, you, as the CEO, should take an authoritative position on the matter and work through a process of professional improving the individual (through training or one-on-one chats).

SWAP IT FOR: An evaluation of the staff member, and a productive, positive brainstorming session on how to fix the problem.


7. “That’s not in my job description”

This is something that you should never hear from a CEO.

Firstly, because the likelihood is (if they are also the founder of the company) that they wrote their own job description, so blaming in on the ‘restrictions’ of the job description is a little unreasonable.

Secondly, as a CEO you should be setting the example of going above and beyond. If you are always putting in that little bit extra effort, then your staff may do the same.

Thirdly, a company is never going to evolve if it sticks to do just what is in the job description. To innovate and thrive, the capacity and expectations of staff will need to alter and grow. If you over-emphasise the job description, staff will be reluctant to branch out from those restrictions.

SWAP IT FOR: “This isn’t something that is necessarily associated with my role, but I am happy to give it a go”.


8. “It’s not my fault”

Bradberry argues that “it is never a good idea to cast blame”. You should always be accountable for your own actions or involvement and, as the CEO, you should be aware that for any activity within the company you will ultimately be accountable for too.

The moment you start pointing fingers is the moment people start seeing you as someone who lacks accountability for their actions. This makes people nervous. Some will avoid working with you altogether, and others will strike first and blame you when something goes wrong”.

SWAP IT FOR: An honest, objective explanation of what happened and offer a genuine apology if necessary.


9. “I can’t”

This is literally admitting failure before you’ve even given it a go. It is verbal proof of you giving up and chucking in the towel – which is something staff members never want to see from their CEO.

When it comes to leadership roles, this phrase is often paired with these three statements:

  1. “I can’t … I don’t have the time” – if you honestly don’t have the time to complete the task, don’t sell it to another member of staff as a shoddy leftover piece that clearly wasn’t important enough for you to complete. Pitch it with value and demonstrate that you are grateful for them helping out with this task.
  2. “I can’t … be bothered” – this is a drastic confession that you couldn’t care less about the work and see very little value in it. Not only does it tarnish that task, but it could also be received as your reflection on the company as a whole. If the CEO can’t be bothered with work, why should the staff?
  3. “I can’t … because I don’t actually know how to” – being open and honest about where your strengths and weaknesses lie is always a good policy around the office. If you really are awful at graphic design then don’t waste precious time attempting to build a banner ad. Where CEOs’ strengths should lie is in management and delegation. You should understand the task that needs to be completed and select a member of your team who is best suited or most qualified to do the job.

SWAP IT FOR: A pitch to an alternative member of staff coupled with a gracious ‘thank you’ for completing work that you weren’t able to.


10. “I hate this job”

Declaring your hatred for the role or company that you are in is toxic for a work environment. To begin with, no one actually enjoys listening to someone complaining about his or her job, as it is tiresome and counterproductive. In whining about your position you will automatically be labelled as a negative person. By whining about your position when you are holding the top spot in the company, you are actually insulting your workers who by proxy are holding ‘worse’ positions. If the CEO doesn’t emit a sense of happiness, enjoyment and demonstrate that there is a great purpose for all this work that the company is doing, they will ultimately drag down the morale of the team. Start doing this on a regular basis and people may begin to jump ship…

SWAP IT IN FOR: “This is the best job in the world”.


By holding a CEO position you are effectively a business leader and you need to set a good example to your team. Eliminating these dangerous phrases from your vocabulary will allow you to improve the working experience for your staff and the positivity will most definitely rub off on you too.

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If you want to take a look at Dr. Travis Bradberry’s full LinkedIn article, please click here.

Topics: business leaders