Lazy phrasing can hurt others

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Hilary Stephenson is the Managing Director at Nexer Digital.

Biggest fuck up?

Attended and inadvertently promoted too many meetings that were clearly draining the life from the attendees and resulting in very few productive outcomes. To appear confident (and corporate), I started to schedule meetings with agendas when 5-minute chats would have done the trick.

I also started to see team leads copying this behaviour, holding similarly formal meetings. To add to it, I got involved in networking meetings where the same stuff was discussed over and over again without any commitment to “doing stuff”. As a team, we quashed it by holding shorter, sharper team sessions where everyone gets to speak each week but only for two minutes, with a 15-minute Q&A at the end.

I also stopped going to (too many) extra-curricular things just because I felt obliged or because someone said, “You really should go to that…”. For family, work and sanity, it’s good to say no to stuff.

Lightbulb moment

Language and how you speak to people really matters. This includes the sales and marketing messages you put out there. If you value things like diversity and inclusion, then state it. Make it part of your identity. We gained more respect when we started to say, “We care about [these things]” when we met new customers. Doesn’t mean we always win business or share the same ethos as those clients, but at least we are being genuine.

I started to volunteer for a charity, Diversity Role Models, which tackles LGBT bullying in schools. I’ve always had a dark, sarcastic, sometimes sardonic sense of humour, possibly as a distraction tactic when I personally felt exposed. It meant I was always quick to make a joke, sometimes at someone’s expense. I like satire and sarcasm, but it shouldn’t tip over to meanness or lazy persecution of others.

DRM focus on the negative impact of phrases like “that’s really gay”, “man up”, and “don’t be such a girl about it”, and it’s powerful to see how young people respond. I have been lazy with phrasing before, so I really try to choose the right words. Seeking to be inclusive and politically correct is a good thing in business and shouldn’t be seen as a weakness or a liberal effort to please. With events this year, I think we need to look at how our language affects others more than ever.

Useful advice

Try to get exposure to new and varied stuff, including meeting new people with backgrounds different to your own but don’t feel pressure to act confident if you genuinely don’t know or understand something.

Sharing your view and being authentic is appreciated, but it’s also ok to say, “I don’t really have a view on that”, or “I’m undecided”. Leadership is less about knowing all the answers and more about showing you know where to look, who to ask, admitting where the gaps are etc.

Basically, stop blagging or lying to impress others, as you will be found out but be confident when you do know something. I read an excellent article from Clare Moriarty on this recently, which summed up issues of confidence in leadership and vulnerability really well.


  1. Hey Hilary,

    I think your point about lazy language and its impact in the workplace is a really important one. Often met with claims of “political correctness gone mad”… but I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject recently and I too think that’s wrong.

    I have and do use a number of lazy phrases despite being aware of the potential consequences. I’ve also been on the receiving end – I was part of a group of 12 MD’s – all of whom were male. Every email sent to the group started with “Hi Gentlemen” – which made me feel like I wasn’t really an equal and ignored.

    I’ve also seen it highlight our bias’ – I was in a meeting with a partner company and were discussing future plans. When talking about hiring a developer and my colleague repeatedly referred to this, as yet unknown person as “he”. I called them out on it and explained that it could be a female developer. They apologised until the same scenario happened 5 minutes later in reference to a business development manager, we were also yet to hire. I’ve done it myself too- presuming the doctor is male etc. Over time it’s made me realise that in isolation these little comments seem insignificant and correcting them can sound petty but they amount to ingrained biases and beliefs which can damage others. I guess we all need to be more aware of what we say to start to challenge biases.

  2. I don’t think we’ll avoid the occasional slip-up but it’s important we try and probably ok to comment where we feel someone else could have phrased things differently. Important not to be condescending but no harm in suggesting alternatives. Applies to gender as you say (also chosen gender identity) but also broader inclusion as well, e.g. talking about “disabled people”, as it’s often their situation/context that disables them, rather than saying they have disabilities. If in doubt, I think it’s also fine to ask people and get feedback as language and situations evolve. I am guilty of being highly inappropriate at times but I am checking myself and others 😉


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