No More ‘Fluffy’ Phrases

Communication is everything if you work in a leadership position (project manager, agile role, team lead, etc.). Avoiding annoying management phrases is crucial to your success.

Clear and open dialogue serves as the foundation for thriving business organizations. As the need for distinct talents grows, it becomes increasingly vital to avoid disheartening communication habits. Regrettably, numerous popular managerial expressions can weaken or impair team spirit. Resorting to such language may foster animosity and erode team effectiveness.

For this reason, it is essential to refrain from using such expressions. Here are a few examples of such phrases:

  1. “Think outside the box.”
  2. “At the end of the day.”
  3. “Synergy”
  4. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team'”
  5. “Work smarter, not harder.”
  6. “It is what it is.”
  7. “Let’s take this offline.”
  8. “Best practices.”
  9. “Low-hanging fruit.”
  10. “We’ve always done it this way.”
  11. “We need to be agile.”
  12. “I’m not sure if this is on your radar.”

Hearing these phrases—or even using them myself—intuitively felt wrong. After some research, the reasons have become clear: such phrases are often redundant, arrogant, manipulative, or condescending.

Here are the “red flags” explained:

  1. “Think outside the box” – Overused and often unhelpful, this phrase can be vague and lack direction.
  2. “At the end of the day” – This cliché adds little value and can be seen as dismissive of others’ opinions.
  3. “Synergy” – This buzzword can be insincere and often seen as meaningless jargon.
  4. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team'” – While teamwork is essential, this phrase can feel patronizing and unoriginal.
  5. “Work smarter, not harder” – This oversimplification can undermine the effort employees are already putting in.
  6. “It is what it is” – This phrase can be seen as dismissive and implies a lack of accountability or desire to find solutions.
  7. “Let’s take this offline” – This phrase can shut down essential discussions and create a sense of secrecy.
  8. “Best practices” – Over-reliance on this term can stifle creativity and suggest a one-size-fits-all approach.
  9. “Low-hanging fruit” – This phrase can downplay the importance of addressing more minor issues or tasks.
  10. “We’ve always done it this way” – This statement hinders innovation and can lead to stagnation.
  11. “We need to be agile” – Overusing this term can dilute its meaning and come across as a vague directive.
  12. “I’m not sure if this is on your radar” – This phrase can seem passive-aggressive, as it may imply that the listener should have already been aware of the issue.

You should have a pretty good feeling for why such phrases harm team spirit and likely have heard many of them in our daily business interactions.

But what would be better alternatives if such phrases should be avoided? It is challenging to come up with such a list. We are often frustrated, overburdened, and close to burnout in everyday business life. The phenomenon called “negativity bias” explains why there is a tendency to remember more negative than positive phrases.

After consciously working on breaking this negativity spell, I could identify some gems from my own professional work.

Phrase: “I like what you delivered!”

Why I like it: There is a phenomenon of the object-subject relationship. If you praise someone’s work, they automatically feel appreciated. Remember: you cannot fake it. If you don’t like this person’s work results, don’t try to simulate your enthusiasm. In such cases, silence is golden.

Phrase: “You’ve got this!”

Why I like it: This is a cool phrase I cannot resist admiring, though I’m not sure exactly why. It is related to the previous phrase. I love it whenever it happens to be true.

Phrase: “I trust your judgment.”

Why I like it: Quite often, I don’t have the personal knowledge or experience to know how good an idea is. However, the person next to me might. Saying that to an actual expert in the given field elevates this person’s confidence and often fosters a great team spirit.

Phrase: “Thank you for your hard work!”

Why I like it: One of my clients would use this phrase very genuinely. I just knew he meant it. I found it very motivating. It made me feel that my efforts were noticed and appreciated.

Phrase: “You inspire me and everyone around us!”

Why I like it: Inspiration is a rare trait. Some of us can’t wait to clock out and call it a day. However, if work is fun and some of us go the extra mile, that’s inspiring and gives the team a sense of purpose. The above phrase is positive, inclusive, and unusual. I only use such phrases on special occasions, such as when a complex problem has just been solved or a significant, hard-to-achieve milestone was achieved.

Phrase: “You are a force to be reckoned with!”

Why I like it: When I find that someone on my team has achieved exceptional results, and it is their personal achievement, I use it in team meetings to communicate special recognition. It is not too formal and not too casual; it’s just right.

Phrase: “Make it happen!”

Why I like it: Years ago, I was asked to take over a testing team in a deeply troubled project that desperately needed to be turned around. My client’s manager would use the phrase, “just make it happen, Roman!” I realized that he needed solutions and no more talk about why things were “impossible.” Long story short, everything worked out, and we became good friends. I still use this phrase in other projects in such situations. It works for me, and it may work for you, too.

How to be authentic

After doing some soul-searching, I concluded that the antonym of “silly management phrases” is not “smart management phrases.” “Making it happen,” as I often think, is not all about “being right.” It is not even about doing the right thing. It is all about actually liking the people you work with. This insight is also related to the “humanship” idea. Suppose you genuinely like people in your team and feel that helping everyone else benefits you, too. In that case, you create a positive feedback loop that is likely to drive your team to surprising accomplishments.

That sounds all good, you might respond, “but it doesn’t give an actionable solution to the ‘silly phrases.'” What do you say if you want to encourage your fellow team members?

Here’s the thing: I cannot tell you because we are (quite fortunately) all different. The phrases you use depend on your way. They should be uniquely yours.

Let me explain what I mean by using an unusual example. The legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin, frequently used words that would be bleeped out on television. You couldn’t just drop the F-bomb left and right! But he did. However, he did it in such a loveable, genuine way that you couldn’t feel bad about it. He also didn’t overdo it. He would serve those expressions in perfect quantity, leading to his text’s excellent overall quality. They were understandable, avoiding euphemisms and redundancy, and created the feeling that you actually know him personally. When other stand-up comedians and speakers use that unorthodox vocabulary, the result is often not appealing. It was simply George Carlin’s way: direct, unique, and genuine.

Your way of expressing a sense of urgency, praise, need for action, and interaction with the people around you must be genuinely yours. It must be your unique way. Otherwise, the danger is that you can come off as disingenuous. But how to become “authentic?” Is it something you can learn in a LinkedIn online training course? There is no easy answer to that question, either. It is a lengthy learning process. You can develop your own style by mindfully watching movies (especially older and classic movies) or reading fiction books. You need to watch a read a lot to build your own personal leadership vocabulary. Take your time and reflect on what you read. In that way, you will identify vocabulary gems you can further develop and practice mindfully.

By the way, if I just said “unique,” then I don’t mean that you have to come up with entirely new, never-heard-of phrases. The old Romans used to say “nihil novi sub sole” (which means “there is nothing new under the sun”). Feel free to “steal” some of those phrases, modify them if needed, and test them in a safe social environment (e.g., with your business friends or strangers). You will automatically memorize those that worked well.

I cannot say what may work for you, but I will use my own example. In an old TV series, one of the main characters used the word “fluffy” to describe something lovely and harmless. I couldn’t help but find it amusing, so I “stole” this word to describe project members or teams who were sometimes not very disciplined. We occasionally laughed about it, and it became a popular expression. Using expressions like “fluffy” is funny and arguably unique, particularly in my business context. I hope you agree that it is virtually impossible to feel offended by it. And yes, I am occasionally “fluffy,” too.

Like in my example, you could develop your own phrases that would be uniquely yours and become part of your personal brand. Try your phrases on your (business) friends first to ensure they don’t have any unintended effects.

“I did it my way.”

The list of well-known recommended communication practices is long. Some examples (with explanation) include the following:

  1. Active listening: Paying close attention to the other person’s words, demonstrating genuine interest.
  2. Empathy: Understanding and acknowledging the feelings and perspectives of others.
  3. Clarity: Expressing thoughts and ideas clearly, concisely, and purposefully while avoiding jargon.
  4. Open-mindedness: Being receptive to new ideas, opinions, and feedback and willing to adapt or change when needed.
  5. Nonverbal communication: Being consistent with the purpose and goals of the communication.
  6. Respect: Valuing others’ opinions, beliefs, and ideas and treating everyone courteously and professionally goes a long way in business life.
  7. Feedback: Providing constructive, specific, and timely feedback, as well as being open to receiving and acting upon feedback from others.
  8. Conflict resolution: Addressing disagreements or misunderstandings calmly and diplomatically.
  9. Active questioning: Ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions to encourage deeper thinking and engagement in conversations.
  10. Conciseness: To maintain the listener’s attention, communicating key points efficiently, without unnecessary detail or repetition.

Countless books expound upon these and other such elements. However, trying to memorize them, while it might be helpful (depending on your learning style), will not automatically make you a good communicator. Instead, finding purpose and genuinely liking people around you will likely automatically help you achieve that goal. That does not, however, mean you must accept destructive, manipulative, aggressive, or hostile tendencies. Some individuals will destroy your team and ruin your project. If such individuals have power over others and you don’t see any way to improve the situation, it’s time to update your LinkedIn profile and move on. Your life is too short to suffer needlessly.

Still, as a general recommendation, despite many setbacks and actual or potential disappointments, it is a good idea to purposefully assume that the people around you are good team members. It pays out big time, on average, and it makes your business life more enjoyable.

In that context, developing your style is just an additional trick to increase your professional effectiveness. Besides the good practices mentioned above, that is my best tangible recommendation. Like in the famous Frank Sinatra song “I did it my way.” Find yours.

Let’s start a conversation on LinkedIn or (formerly Twitter).

United Mentors GmbH | Website | + posts

I am a project manager (Project Manager Professional, PMP), a Project Coach, a management consultant, and a book author. I have worked in the software industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. Please visit my United Mentors home page for more details. Contact me on LinkedIn for direct feedback on my articles.