6 Toxic Sentences in the Workplace

Posted By on Feb 16, 2018

“If we understood the awesome power of our words, we would prefer silence to almost anything negative.” – Betty Eadie

I decided to use this quote as an introduction to this article. Words, very often, carry a lot in meaning, and not everyone is good at weighting the potential impact that a remark, be it passive-aggressive or sincere, can have on their work environment.

Some examples are extremely easy to understand, like the one of those airline companies that refer to their clients as “self-loading cargo”. Other harmful terms, however, are completely anchored in our reality, like the use of the term “resources” when referring to people.

But what does “toxic” mean? For my part, toxic sentences are those that will generate cynicism, very slowly, little by little. It doesn’t seem to have an immediate effect, but after years, people are drowning in it.

I recently asked this question on LinkedIn : “What are some sentences that are toxic yet often heard at work? Why are they toxic?”. The answers were as varied as they were interesting. They are my inspiration in writing this article.

You can’t do this, it’s not your job…

For me, this statement summarizes a situation that poses an acute problem. First, it suggests that every employee’s scope of action is limited to what’s listed in their job description. People were hired to do one thing, nothing else.

Too bad for those who wanted to learn or try something new, expanding one’s role or taking initiative is not encouraged. That’ll teach them to care about the company for which they work.

Did you notice the cynicism in my last sentence?

It was a business decision…

I’m not saying that management shouldn’t take (business or not) decisions; but the so called “business decisions” are generally unilateral decisions that were taken while being fully aware of the probable negative consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, it is more than necessary in many cases. However, it appears to me that business decisions are easily evoked. Putting the business decision label on all decisions that have an enormous impact on the motivation, the fulfillment and even the career of employees does not erase any of the consequences.

When I hear “It was a business decision” as an explanation, my brain translates as “We were aware of the consequences and decided we were more than comfortable with the fact it would affect you negatively”. It is primordial to expose the context and reasons behind these decisions very clearly, otherwise, people will come up with reasons that makes sense to them, which rarely benefits management or the organization.

Do we have the choice? Not always. Does it create cynicism? Definitely, if we can’t explain the decision properly.

I decided that…

This is the business decision’s little brother, on a smaller scale. Consequences are probably much less severe, and that is why it is so easy to take decisions by ourselves. It will only affect a few people, after all.

But we need to remember that those people will have to live with this decision. Those who will be affected will feel and deal with the impact of this decision daily. Is it possible to, at best, let take take the decision? At worst, include them in the decision making process.

Following Isabelle Therrien’s excellent suggestion, I’m including a link to the different delegation levels by Jurgen Appelo. This tool’s purpose is to help include your team in the decision making process, while deciding together what kind of delegation is necessary.

Click here to learn more about Jurgen Appelo’s Delegation Poker

We’ve always done it like this…

That’s the motto of organizations with a fixed mindset. Change is the only constant in the universe. If a solution, a way of doing things, an approach was ideal at a certain point in time, I can guarantee that the context surrounding this approach has now changed. People, their maturity level, their needs are now different. Everything around it has evolved, why isn’t the practice evolving at the same time?

It seems like organizations have a very strong need for stability and control, and take decisions “once and for all”. Nevertheless, the only stability they can expect is change. By not adapting to change, a process very quickly becomes heavy, cumbersome, complex or useless, and people will have to bear the brunt, because they will be the ones to forever adapt their reality for a process that doesn’t evolve.

We all agree that…


A good way for someone to thumb his/her nose at the dissidents. An intellectual shortcut that banks on people’s discomfort to take the floor. An efficient tool in environments where healthy conflicts can’t emerge and artificial harmony reigns.

This approach automatically closes the door to discussion, and consequently, to the benefits of collective intelligence. It’s pretty much like saying “I decided that”, but without owning it.

No, in general, people don’t all agree. I invite people who regularly use this approach to try and talk last, and observe how much opinions diverge. And often, one might be surprised to discover that people have much better ideas than expected!

I hear what you’re saying, but…

I think this must be the most honest and openly admitted statement about how one is actively not listening to his conversation partner. They “hear” what the other person says, of course. Adding to the fact that most people listen to answer back rather than understanding, one who agrees to limit himself to hearing withdraws any kind of responsibility towards the content of the discussion.

We hear, but we don’t take the responsibility to take a position on the discussion topic. This represents a total disengagement towards the communication process itself and the person we’re talking with. If someone was only hearing without ever listening to you, would you make this person your confidant? Me neither…

About the author

Olivier Fortier cultivates people’s awesomeness. He dreams of an employment market where everyone thrives and are in control of their career. As a manager, he prefers the “people first, the rest will follow” mentality. His favorite topics are organizational culture, the right to make mistakes, leader-leader relationships, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process.

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