Five Phrases To Avoid During A Crisis

In the age of "cancel culture," a CEO whose messaging rings hollow or self-serving can easily lose credibility. Language matters.

On a normal day, communicating message clearly and successfully to stakeholders can be challenging. But during a crisis, when people feel more raw than they’re willing to acknowledge, a CEO’s questionable choice of words may resonate particularly hard. It’s easier for angry listeners to “cancel” leaders for not using the right words than to try to appreciate the message they are trying to convey.

Tragically, Covid-19 deaths continue to soar—and the end is nowhere in sight. That means that, for an extended period, emotions will be raw, tensions will be high, and CEOs will have to be particularly careful with their messaging.

One need not be a snowflake to recognize that words matter—and one need only look at the speed with which social media responds to appreciate the consequences. With that in mind, i recommend avoiding the following five phrases, all of which I have heard leaders use only to have their well-intentioned messages get lost.

1. “We are all in the same boat.”

The intent is to relate and connect. But here’s the problem: it is not true.

For example, if you have an actual boat, you are not in the same financial boat as the person who is uncertain as to whether he or she will be able to make the next rent or mortgage payment. If you miss seeing your colleagues while working remotely in your home office, you certainly are not in the same emotional boat, at least in terms of work, as exposed employees working on site who worry about infection.

We are not all in the same boat, but perhaps we all are in the same storm.  False equivalence is, well, false.

2. “Our leadership team is doing a great job.”

As noted above, many leadership teams are doing an amazing job managing the unmanageable. So some leaders try to instill confidence in their workforce by heaping praise on leaders. It feels unseemly, and worse, it undermines your good work.

Talk about what you have done without self-praise. Let the employees reach the conclusion on their own. If you tell employees what a great job you are doing, many will look to find where you are not.  Seek and they shall find.

Marinating in self-praise is also the antithesis of servant leadership. If that term is foreign to you, it is not too late to learn about it and try to adopt the mindset and act accordingly.

3. “We need to return to work.”

I hear that and I cringe. Many employees are already on the worksite. Are they not working? How about those remote workers? Yes, I believe those of us who have the privilege to work remotely are fortunate, but that does not mean we are not working hard. There may be some who have leaned back, but most, I believe, are working harder than ever under challenging circumstances.

Let’s talk about the hopeful, gradual and safe increase in the number of employees who may return to the workplace. A few extra words may make all the difference on how you are perceived, and therefore, on your credibility.

4. “We will win.”

I understand why leaders may use these or comparable expressions. It is important for leaders to convey hope and optimism is part of what makes leaders effective. But while the intent is winning, the effect may not be. Nearly 140,000 Americans alone have died from this disease. They have already lost, and so have their family and friends. More than 30 million people have lost their jobs. They have lost and so have their families that depend on them. The toll has been particularly brutal on Black Americans.

Leaders can convey optimism about the collective future of their employees and others while acknowledging the painful toll this pandemic has taken on so many. Employees are more likely to share their leaders’ enthusiasm when it is calibrated by their realities.

It is not about winning. It is about being resilient and adapting.

5. “I am doing great.”

In making presentations or responding to questions on how they are, some leaders state that they are doing “great” or other effusive terms. One leader reportedly said: “Never have been better.”

Perhaps the leader recognizes that he or she has things a little easier than most. Of course, leaders can have hardships, too, but their positions usually provide them with more flexibility and financial resources to attempt to deal with them.

Perhaps the answer that will not provoke contempt is “grateful.”  On a personal level, I am grateful, but I am by no means great. The best leaders, in my view, temper their strength with at least a scent of vulnerability. It takes courage to admit one is vulnerable.

If a leader acknowledges in an appropriate way how he or she feels, he or she increases his or her credibility. Plus, the leader may invite an authentic conversation that would help strengthen a connection, something many of us are missing these days.

Consider saying this: “I am grateful. Even though I know am more fortunate than most, I have my hard days, too. We all are trying to hang in. How about you, really?”

Then wait and listen. As Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”