Monday, September 9, 2013

8 Condescending Things a Manager Should Avoid Saying to an Employee

Condescending: having or showing a feeling of patronizing superiority

Most managers would be shocked if they found out they were seen as condescending. If confronted by a brave employee, they would probably deny it (“that’s not what I meant”, or “you’re being too sensitive”).
However, even decent managers sometimes say things to their employees, with good intentions, that may come across as condescending. Given how hesitant most employees are about giving feedback, they may never know how they’ve made the employee feel.

Below are 8 things that run the risk as coming across as condescending. I say “run the risk”, because there are always exceptions, and context is everything. Also, it’s often not what is said, it’s how it’s said – the tone of the message.
A simple phase like “How are you doing today” can come across as condescending if truly someone feels that they are superior to the other person.

Then there’s my favorite, when you try to disagree with a boss, and they respond by talking LOUDER and slooower to you, in order to help you understand.
Whatever the case, just beware of the following phrases … and please excuse my condescending remarks after each phrase. (-:

1. “I’m not a detail person, but Leslie here is, so she’ll take care of that stuff”.
I really doubt that Leslie loves slogging through those mundane details any more than you do, but she has to – it’s her job, and not yours, so she does it. And because she takes pride in her work, she does it well, just like you do. So don’t call her out in front of others as a “detail” person, as if it’s in her DNA, and pat yourself on the back for being a big-shot “big picture” person.
A similar condensing bit of “praise” is something like “Hey, let me introduce you to Leslie – she’s the one who really runs things around here, not me (har har har)”.

No, she really doesn’t – you do. Leslie is simply doing her job, stuff she’s supposed to do.

2. “Don’t worry about it”, or “It’s no big deal”.
It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to your employee, or they would not have brought it up. You need to take the time to listen, and find out why the employee is concerned, and then take the opportunity to coach the employee to help them find a solution.

3. “Oh, you sound just like my son/daughter/wife/ex-wife/husband/grandmother or any other family member.”
In other words, you’re just as clueless as one of my family members are. This is just another way of dismissing the employee’s concern or idea.

4. “Well, that sounds good in theory, but in the real world….”
So what world are you saying your employee is from? Gee, maybe you might want to take some time to hear the employee’s “theory” out, and check your real-world assumptions at the door for a moment.

5. “I don’t have time to deal with this – figure it out, that’s your job”.
While this may be true, again, you’re missing a great opportunity to coach. And oh yeah, that’s your job – to coach and develop your employees.

6. “I know you’re feeling ______ right now, but you really shouldn’t because…”
Never assume you know what an employee is feeling or tell them how they should be feeling. Ask them how they feel, and acknowledge it by responding with empathy.

7. “You don’t seem to understand…”, or, “I don’t think you’re listening to me…”
Well, maybe they do, or they are, and just don’t agree with you. Try finding out why, you might learn something.

8. “Well, you’re the first one to complain about this – no one else seems to have a problem with it”.
That’s because no one else had the cojones to speak up. And if you ask the others if they “have a problem with it”, you’ll hear exactly what you want to hear, not the truth.

How about you? What does “condescending” sound like to you?


Anonymous said...

Condescending, to me, sounds like:
"Now, ..."
"I don't have time..."
"Do x and include these bullets. Here's a draft I've already started."

Condescension is anytime I'm put off or made to feel like my project/program has nothing to contribute to the overarching mission. It feels a lot like being micromanaged.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks for those great examples. Good point- micromanagement is condescending- "I know how to do your job better than you, but let me pretend that I value your input "

Unknown said...

I would agree with Anonymous above. Telling me something I should already know is condescending.

Also, for your #2 above, telling me not to worry is condescending. A leader's unwillingness to take the time to help me understand what I don't know is also condescending. Help me understand so I can be more valuable to the organization.

Great post! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and entertaining post, Dan. It makes me laugh the way Dilbert can make me laugh.

Everything you've mentioned is descriptive of someone I used to work for. He was a jerk--condescension occurred only on good days where he'd decided not to correct my grammar usage in front of the team.

If someone finds that they are behaving this way, resign. You will never learn leadership, and the swath of destruction behind you grows wider by the day.

Anonymous said...

Favourtism can be condescending too. And oftentimes "support" can be condescending too.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mike -
Thanks for your comment!

Kathy -
I LOVE Dilbert, thanks!
Arrgh, he corrected your grammer in front of others?! Jerk.
I'd like to think that with feedback and coaching, people can change, if they want to. But not the jerks. (-:

Anon -
Thanks. Can you give an example of each? what would it sound like?

robert seres said...

in most cases, its not about what you say its how you say it. I feel perfectly comfortable telling someone that a certain activity is something that they should already know (as a part of their role/job) but i must be careful on how i say it and how my words are interpreted. Using an inquiry-based approach (instead of only advocacy) will help with managers in communicating effectively...

Dan McCarthy said...

Robert -
Thanks for your comment. Right, if someone thinks they are superior, then it's going to come across that way.

Joseph Lalonde said...

Man, I hear #5 quite a bit at my job from one of the guys we merged with. It's frustrating and demeaning when he says it, even if it's not meant to be. Especially when other people are anxious to have their problem solved and he knows the setup and passwords...

Dan McCarthy said...

Joseph -
Thanks for that example - I wonder why he does that?

brunsconsult said...

Great! Very specific and deeper thinking than most examples.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes people are condescending as a defense mechanism to cover-up their own insecurity or lack of knowledge. Viewing themselves as superior to others makes it even harder to make a true connection with employees and exhibit genuine leadership.

E.Bornet said...

I am guilty of #1 the second version. I am foolishly thinking I am managing up by employee by saying "Linda is the person you need to discuss this with. She is the real power behind the throne." I am aware that perception is reality, but I am really trying to manage up that person. Geez unintended consequences.

Anonymous said...

Best just to keep ones mouth shut and say nothing.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wow, I've never been acused of being deep. (-:

That could be, thanks for that insight.

I've said it to, with no ill intent. Men say it about their wives a lot (but never the other way around). Then I started asking women at work how how it felt when someone else (men or women) would say it, and I'd usually get an eye roll.

No, best to be aware of how you're coming across to others, and be willing to change. But thanks, I can understand your reaction. Sometimes it feels like that as a manager.

Unknown said...

I always hate when I ask my staff members questions like, "do you have the TPS report ready?"

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

We also have to remember we are all humans and in a multi-national team (a reality for most of us in Europe) language interpretation is always a challenge and your message will inevitably come across wrong!

Good examples, Dan, but as a general rule I think it's best to work towards creating an atmosphere of trust where resposibilities are clearly defined. This leads to two positive outcomes:

1) People will not feel threatened to say what they think, to ask for explanations and so on. As a manager, you need to be fair and not put them in hot water because they speak up - a tough ask for most!

2) You don't need to use pompous sentences to remind whose job that is. Either Leslie is responsible for the outcome, or I am, or Joe is, and so on. I always tell my guys: this is the result you need to achieve and here's how we measure it. If you know a better way to do it, let's discuss. And I expect a full solution, not just a bright "vague idea".


Dan McCarthy said...

FC -
Thanks, great point about trust1

Anonymous said...

A manager says "I'm to busy to do that." but lets give that to the administrative staff, like they don't have nothing else to do.

Anonymous said...

One manager sends an email to another manager with instructions for his department to handle an event set up, instead of sending it to the person that handles the scheduling of those details.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks for those examples.

Mary Faulkner said...

Great post, Dan! Sadly, I recognize some of my more stressful manager moments in here...

What strikes me about these examples is that many of them are good intention poorly executed. Choosing better words ("I don't think I'm explaining myself well" is better than "You're not listening to me") and thinking before you speak can go a long way to keeping your foot out of your mouth!

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary -
Thanks for your comment. Good point. I've done most of them too, all well intended of course. (-:

Katie Richard said...

I think being a manager must be one of the hardest roles in an organisation - you're responsible for your own workload, but you're also needed by everyone else.

I've worked in organisations where my manager just didn't have time for coaching, so I would just work everything out on my own. I always got there in the end, but I would have felt more connected to the job and to my team if they expressed interest in me instead of just getting the work done.

Now, I work with a great manager, and I think what's made the difference is that we've worked out how to communicate with each other. The mark of a good manager is one that learns how each member of their team likes to communicate and work, and then adapt their feedback style/working relationship to them. And the same goes for staff with managing upwards. It's all about negotiation and communication.

Dan McCarthy said...

Katie -
Thanks for your comment about what makes a great manager.

Unknown said...

The word "whatever" or "suit yourself". Or emphasizing "you're not thinking".