One Word You Should Never use with an Employee or Colleague


When I’m coaching a first-time manager, we spend a lot of time talking about communication. They often come to understand over time that their words have power over others. They can build and motivate or they can cause distrust or harm the work relationship.

The one word I advise managers (or leaders at any level really) to strike from their vocabulary is “Why?” Think of the emotions that one word embodies. You’re immediately calling to question the root of the other person’s position. This places them on the defensive and it will be difficult to have an open exchange of ideas when one person is simply trying to protect their ego and self-worth.

I can hear all of my analytical friends screaming “But I need information! I need to know why something is happening or why a decision was made.” I’m not saying you can’t dig deeper into a situation or look for cause and effect. What I am saying is that there’s a much better way to engage subordinates and colleagues without placing them on the defensive.

Here’s where you get to pull out a coaching competency from your leadership tool belt and use a little appreciative inquiry. Rephrasing your Why? question into one coming from a position of strength and collaboration will always lead to a more productive discussion. You want to look for the best of the situation and create an environment where you envision possibilities and collectively decide the path forward.

Here’s an example: “Why did the shipment go out late today?!”
might become: “We’ve had a really good record of getting shipments out in the past. What factors lead to that success? It appears we were late this month, what changed?”
You’re working to discover a cause and solution together. You still get your question answered but the bonus is that you’ll likely also have a solution to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Every question you ask causes a series of thoughts to run through the mind of the one being questioned. We know our thoughts create our reality so if your questions cause doubt, insecurity and defensiveness in the minds of your colleagues, that’s the mindset you’ll be fostering. If you can approach others in a way that creates vision, possibilities, and collaboration then that’s the type of team you’ll be building. Which group might be more productive and creative when problem solving?

Over the next few weeks, try dropping the “Why?” questions and note the impact it has on others. (This works in personal relationships as well as those at work.)

Image courtesy of Ambro /

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