13 stupid sentences that will derail your career

13 Stupid Sentences That Will Derail Your Career

I wish HR would teach a course on the really stupid sentences people say at work. Oh, I’m not talking about the obvious stupidity: “you look hot in that dress” or “hey baby”. There are training and rules for that. But there’s no code of conduct to protect against the stupid, dis-empowering words I often hear up, down and sideways.

Before writing this post, I decided to do an informal stupid sentence poll through social media. The responses fell into two big categories: Stupid sentences that deny accountability and stupid sentences that prove you are clueless. I’ll start; you add to the lists.

Stupid Sentences That Deny Accountability

1. That’s Not My Job (#1 by a landslide) – Although we all know this, someone is still out there saying it.  Instead, help all you can.

2. That Decision’s Above My Pay Grade – The really wacky part of this one, is that I hear it most often at the higher levels of the business. Please, please don’t say this. And whatever you do, don’t say it to someone at a lower pay grade than you. They count on you to advocate for what’s right, not shrug your shoulders and rollover.

3. I Wasn’t Aware – This one is commonly used to throw someone else under the bus. Trust me, you look like an idiot. “Let me find out more”, “I’m digging in”, and “I’m here to help” are all acceptable replacement statements.

4. My Team really Screwed This Up – No one really says this do they? From my experience and the poll, yes. Sometimes out loud; sometimes by just being silent. Own your team’s mistakes and help them fix them and learn. There’s no better way to gain credibility up and down the chain.

5. I Can Always Get Another Job At Twice The Pay Some Place Else – Okay, if that’s really true, and you’re disgruntled with the rest of the scene to say that out loud, maybe you really should go find another job.  But if you’re just blowing smoke,  be careful.

6. I Just Don’t Have Enough Time To Do That – If it’s not a priority say that. If it’s important than it’s time to ask some “how can we” questions.

7. It’s Not My Fault, It’s The Other Department’s Mistake – Let’s assume that’s true. Taking the high-road would look like ________________? Who and how would that help?

Stupid Sentences That Prove You’re Clueless

8. That’s A Stupid Question – As much as I want to throw up every time someone says there are no stupid questions, the truth is leaders keep saying that because other leaders are out there making people feel stupid.

9. What’s Wrong With Them – If your team’s not performing, the problem starts with you, not them. It could be selection, systems, rules, leadership. Figure it out, reverse the direction of your finger-pointing.

10. That’ll Never Work – If I had a nickel for every time my team proved me wrong or I proved someone wrong, the truth is that just because it didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work now. Put away old biases and really listen. Consider a pilot or some other form of toe-dipping. Most importantly, be a receptive and encouraging leader.

11. That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It –  In our Courageous Cultures research, we’ve found that 67% of employees believe that managers operate under the notion of “this is the way we’ve always done it.”  Such thinking squashes creativity and encourages FOSU (fear of speaking up).

12. The Employees Need To Realize They Are Lucky To Have Jobs In This Economy – Okay, so grateful (and without choices) that they _____________. I know you’re not saying these things, but research has shown many someones are.

13. Your turn. What would you add?

2019 Update

If you’ve stumbled on this article you’ve found one of the early ones. I have some updated thinking in an article I wrote for Fast Company: 10 Common Excuses that Silently Damage Manager’s Careers

If you’re looking for more career tools, you might enjoy some of these.

Avoid These Infuriating Phrases in End of Year Feedback

7 Questions to Ask Yourself to Become a Better Leader

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Career & Learning, Communication and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Karin- a great post. Stupidity levels in which the lowest one is saying things that harm all. Nobody benefits. At a slightly higher levels saying things that harm on party and the other party doesn’t benefit. A slightly higher level is saying something that hurts one party and benefits the other.
    I wish my time would allow me to do the 5-why analysis to identify why people do that.
    Throwing responsibilities at others, blaming others, complaining, negative thinking, and all sorts of evil make some say say things that are groundless.
    I hope my comment makes some sense.

  2. Ali, Your comments are spot on! I do wonder WHY people say such things. I imagine it might take more than 5 “whys.” I do see stupidity you describe far too often.

  3. I once said five words to the VP of sales that was great for my career.

    Each rep had to give their quarterly forecast in a one on one presentation with the VP.

    I had a chunky order, $200K+, that would be booked in the following quarter. The VP was insistent on having it happen this quarter.

    After giving him a long explanation of the players, issues, etc. of the account (VP was quizzing me on whether or not I knew what was going on inside the account)I looked him square in the eye and said “It is what it is.” This was circa 1998.

    From that moment on, he never questioned anything I ever said.

    • Great story, Steve. There are defining moments that make a career. The most significant sentence I ever uttered to my boss was…”You would never know this if I didn’t tell you, but I did something really dumb in Japan last week.” That sentence made me a lot of money over the next 20 years because it ensured trust.

  4. “We complained about to management, but they didn’t do anything.” Sometimes when I hear this it is management’s fault. But, most of the time it’s about something the employee is simply unwilling to take responsibility for fixing.

  5. How about “Let’s run it up the flag pole”? That is circa 1970, and speaks to the old fashioned command and control military style of leadership – not the style I feel gets the best impact.

  6. This is an awesome list, Karin!

    “It’s not my job” would have been my choice as well…I hear it so often and it’s a clumsy excuse for trying to pass the buck.

    P.S. Love your book promo!

    • Pip… I agree, that’s a pretty strange way to put it. You want more work, but you’re not ready? Hmmm…. Have you asked her for ways to get more prepared sooner? A mentor? Working with a peer?

  7. I have never heard “It’s not my job” in any context. Maybe I’m in the wrong circles!

    What would I add to your list? If I were to coach leaders, one of my talking points would be to have them decrease the use of You-statements and increase the use of I-statements. “You shouldn’t …” would thus be “I need …” In my opinion, one of those statements restricts thought & creativity while the other does the opposite.

  8. I used to hear this sometimes “Doesn’t anybody know that I’m the boss or (fill in position here)?” This was usually from people thinking their title gave them automatic respect.

  9. A bit similar to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ would be people saying ‘i’ve worked here for many years’ and therefore thinking they know everything better.

  10. “That should have fixed it,” or “It shouldn’t happen again.” I hear this from a lot of folks who don’t want to solve the problem, they just want to get past it and hope it never comes back. It will. It happened once, “should” won’t prevent it from happening again.

    “He/She is an adult, they ‘should’ know better!” Ha! If being an adult is the criteria for “knowing better” then why are our prisons overflowing with adults?

    I wrote an article about this once in which I proposed we “should” remove the word “should” from the English language so we could stop trying to solve problems and changing things with that word. I was being ironic…not sure if anyone else got the joke. 😉

    • Tom, those are all great ones. Thank you. Always feel free to attach any links to articles that you’ve written. I love it when our community extends the conversation.

  11. I cringed reading so many of these! I also cringe when I work with leaders that seem to start every sentence with “In my experience…” Duh. We know you’re experienced but let’s get creative together about this situation.

    Great pointers for leaders at every level here!

    • Alli, GREAT one. Yeah, if you have to keep reminding us how experienced you are, I begin to question how secure you are in what you know.

  12. “We should’ve anticipated this”. How is saying that helpful to solving the current dilemma, whatever it may be? If there truly were indicators and signs that were missed, discuss it after the problem is solved so that it isn’t repeated in the future. Said in the moment, all this does is drag down morale.

    • David, yes! Oh, I’ve heard that many times. You are right, that doesn’t really help move the ball forward. Great to have you joining the conversation.

  13. I just can hear leaders barking out these insane statements especially when it comes to change and they keep repeating: “We tried this before and it didn’t work.”

    We all need to be aware of what we say and what we sound like. These statements can be such de-motivators.

    Thanks Karin!

    • I agree Terri, I try to remind my bosses that “we tried this before and it didn’t work”. I feel like a slave sometimes and it ain’t fair! They don’t even call me by my real name, my nickname in the office is “Toby”.

  14. “They oughta wanna”

    “If we just explain it better they’l”

    “Employees don’t care about the business…they just want to collect their paycheck”

    “I tried”

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