Weak Language vs Overconfidence

There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of Forbes Magazine on the Worst Words to Say at Work. For quick reference, those words are: “try”, “whatever”, “maybe” and “I don’t know”, “I’ll get back to you”, “If”, “yes, but…”, “I guess”, and “we’ll see…”.

It’s an interesting list. But I have to say, there’s a time and place for everything – including weak language. Far too often, and especially in the legal profession, command and control personalities leave a wake of unproductive business operations behind them. Workplaces that are so scared to cause waves, the ability of employees to co-operate and produce a team product is undermined.

I understand most of a list like this, and how some of these phrases could cause confidence problems with coworkers; but there are two phrases included here, at least in my books, that are essential to a healthy work environment: “try” and “I don’t know”.

Let’s start with “try”. Not every question or task has a certain outcome. Is there a risk involved? Let’s declare it up front, and then proceed ahead because we’re willing to take that risk. Those that are risk adverse will never “try” unless someone guarantees them a positive outcome. Dropping the word ‘try’ from your workplace vocabulary isn’t clear and honest communication. I’ll take an employee who says they’ll “try” any day – especially if the alternative is a false sense of security.

I’m also a fan of: “I don’t know”. Of the more entrepreneurial and innovative lawyers I’ve met over the years, few haven’t been willing to say the phrase: ‘I don’t know’. Think about how convincing it is! Your lawyer or adviser has the answer 90% of the time, but every once in a while will say ‘I don’t know’. Admittedly, this is a phrase that must be used in moderation, and likely followed by ‘we’re going to have to figure that out’, but my confidence level skyrockets for most colleagues if used appropriately.

I’m certain, BTW, if they were still handing out deadly sins, overconfidence would be inserted right after gluttony. How healthy can your work environment possibly be when everyone always has the right answer? How many productive conversations are you having?

This is all personal opinion, of course. Some of you may subscribe to ‘never showing your weakness‘; which I’ll admit is widely accepted. I just happen to believe showing the occasional vulnerability is a positive attribute – both in the workplace, and in business. Adds a little humanity to the experience.


  1. The general point is well taken. But I remember a senior solicitor telling me that the words the client least likes to hear from the lawyer is ‘that’s an interesting question.’ Expenses foreseen…

    Benjamin Franklin (was it) said that one can make a lot of headway for one’s ideas by advancing them tentatively, along the lines of ‘I may be mistaken, but …’ or ‘Perhaps you have a better idea, but …’.

    Politicians are in an even worse position than lawyers in not being allowed – by the media, by the opposition, by voters – to say that they don’t know. One can’t get by on permanent ignorance, but one should be able to admit the novelty of a problem, in a world where not every problem has a quick fix.

  2. Perhaps, if some of these “weak” words were used and encouraged in the financial industry a global mess might have been avoided. But, who’s to say.