Two Words Your Employees Should Never Hear

“You’re wrong!”

Together, those words comprise the single most destructive phrase anyone can utter in any environment. Think for a moment: How can saying “you’re wrong” affect your personal relationships? Say it often enough — and forcefully enough — to your spouse, your child, your neighbors, or your coworkers and you risk irreparable harm to those relationships.

How do you react when someone says that to you (even if they’re only bringing it up in the context of “famous movie quotes”)? It might be OK occasionally in jest, among friends. But do you know anyone who’s made a habit of saying “you’re wrong” to others and isn’t merely joking around? Does that say “leadership material” to you?

What do you think of the person who has that answer to every problem?

  • They’re closed-minded, aren’t they? Why don’t they listen? Is it because they have all the answers…or because they’re not sure they have the answer?

We sometimes say people are “set in their ways” — that’s another way of saying they’re not open to change or growth. Not being open to new and different is like giving a death sentence. The moment we stop learning, we start dying.

  • They’re unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for the problem. They’re perfectionistic. The standards they hold themselves — and everyone else — to are impossible.

“Failure is not an option.”
(“Apollo 13”, 1995)

Only when lives are in danger is this close to the truth and even then (e.g., the operating room, a crash scene, Apollo 13), not everyone can be saved. Failure is common to all living things but humans are among the few species that can outlive their mistakes and learn from them.

“Pain is the best teacher.”
(Mark G. Flick and others)

Failure is an opportunity for improvement. Failure is only “the end of civilization as we know it” when you believe that so deeply that nothing and no one can dissuade you. There are certain beliefs that shouldn’t be unshakeable.

“The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”
(Albert Einstein)

What else could we say about the person whose response to almost everything is, “You’re wrong”?

  • They don’t seem to understand the problem/issue on more than one level (i.e., they’ve never been there).
  • They judge quickly, often before the facts are in.
  • They don’t consider alternative points of view.
  • They rarely, if ever, accept the possibility that there’s more than one way to look at an issue, or solve a problem.
  • They discourage, rather than inspire, creativity.
  • They look for someone to blame.

“The Buck Stops Here.”
(Harry S. Truman, 33rd US President)

Before you put your foot in your mouth…before you self-nominate as one of the worst bosses of 2011…before you think of saying “You’re wrong” to a coworker or subordinate, stop for a moment (or two or ten) and mull over these points:

  • Were your expectations for the project — and the people — reasonable? Were they clearly communicated? You know, there are not only many ways to say the same thing in one language — with increased globalization, we have to be careful that what we say in our native tongue is translated accurately into other languages.
  • Did your employee(s) have enough of the right training on tools and techniques?
  • Is previous experience necessary? If so, are your employees suitably experienced)?
  • Have you regularly taken the time to review the task’s (or project’s) progress? Problems are easier to resolve when they’re small.
  • Did you listen for responses or rebuttals? Or, was your mind already made up?
  • Are you thinking objectively?
  • Whose interests are you defending?
  • Do you encourage people to risk failure as part of your organization’s learning process?
  • In the grand scheme of things, is it that important to be “right” on this one issue?

I’ll finish with this question because I think it’s the most important:

  • Are you listening?

You don’t like working with people who are always right, do you? You certainly don’t want to be one of those people, do you?


Woodfill, Jerry, “Origin of ‘Apollo 13’ Quote: ‘Failure Is Not an Option.'”, 2002 –


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Posted in Leadership, Listening

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