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The 3 phrases you’re saying that trigger employee disengagement

Stop saying these words — you’re wearing your employees thin.

You’re doing it again. You don’t mean to, but it’s happening: Your words are damaging your team. Small, off-hand remarks color how an employee thinks you value their work. Comments seemingly innocuous to you are in fact infuriating to your team.

You may have started to notice this. When you praise an employee, your compliment is met with an empty stare. When you announce a decision at a meeting, the reaction is silent agreement… or perhaps, silent fuming.

Your words aren’t helping. They’re hurting.

As demoralizing as it might be to recognize this, there’s an upside. Improving employee engagement can be as straightforward as changing what you’re saying to your team. It doesn’t have to be about investing thousands of dollars in a new employee benefits program, or bringing in an external consultant to write a custom employee engagement survey. To boost your team’s engagement, you can simply stop saying certain phrases.

Here are three phrases I’ve been a perpetrator of saying — and that I’m sure you have too – that can cause an employee to be disengaged:

“Not now”

You say this when a new idea is offered. Not every time, but half of the time. I get it. You can’t implement every idea, and it’s tiring to field new initiatives during a meeting when you’re already short on resources. But consider how dismissive the phrase “not now” can be, when an employee goes on a limb to offer a well thought-out idea. Snuff out a suggestion and you snuff out an employee’s motivation to bring it up the next time around.

While you can’t implement every idea, your knee jerk reaction doesn’t have to be “not now” each time. Instead, say specifically when you’d like to reconsider the idea (e.g., “Can we revisit this next month?). Or say honestly share why you don’t think it’s a good idea, all together (e.g., “Here’s why I don’t we should pursue this…”). Your team will appreciate your candor, instead of feeling strung along that maybe this will happen in the future, maybe it won’t.

In the end, remember that suggestions are a harbinger of employee engagement. Your team cares enough to want to make things better. Greet these suggestions with enthusiasm, curiosity, and a genuine desire to explore them.

“Good job”

An employee completes a project and we instinctively say, “Good job.” Ron Carucci in Harvard Business Review calls this “drive-by praise” We pop our heads into their office and briefly say “thanks,” or send a quick 👍 on Slack. Yes, it’s better than saying nothing, but employees want (and deserve!) more. They want specifics on how they can improve, and feedback on what they did well.

Uttering “good job” doesn’t show that you understand all the work they did, and doesn’t help them do better next time. Don’t wait for performance reviews to give detailed feedback, either. Take a few minutes every week or two to provide feedback and sincere, specific praise for what you think they’re doing well. For example, you could say, “I learned a lot from you by watching how you interacted with that upset client with grace and steadfastness.” Compare those words to merely saying, “Good job with that angry client.” If you’re curious for more ideas for ways to express gratitude in words sincerely, read this.


We lean heavily on these four letters, as managers. Fires are burning everywhere, so saying “ASAP” communicates urgency to our team. But urgency is a spectrum — and ASAP includes no nuance for where on that spectrum something actually is. As a result, “ASAP” creates confusion for our employees: “Is it actually urgent, or somewhat urgent?” When employees feel constrained on time unnecessarily, they’re frazzled — and their work and morale suffer because of it.

Rather than relying on these four letters to communicate urgency, first consider what degree of urgency is this? For example: “This is highly urgent and needs to be turned around in the next 24 hours,” or “This is fairly urgent and should be prioritized over most tasks, but can be finished by the end of the week.” Be conscious that the amount of time you give someone to complete a deliverable affects their level of engagement. Gallup in fact found that “when employees say they often or always have enough time to do all of their work, they are 70% less likely to experience high burnout.”

Saying these phrases on occasion are harmless. It’s the repetition of them over time that inflicts harm. Like a tire driving over a road, the more pressure applied and the more times travelled, the more you wear the ground underneath it.

Better to just stop driving on those roads. Better to just stop saying these phrases.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.