3 Things PMs Should Stop Saying (and 2 Things They Shouldn't)

I've been reading a ton lately about how to embrace diversity in the workplace and how to better lead teams. It should come as no surprise that empathy is one of the factors that distinguishes a great PM from an average one. If you can't relate to your team or your clients, project management won't be your profession for long. Therefore, empathetic PMs need to be careful of the words they use. And, I don't just mean the typical caveats that an estimate is a rough order of magnitude or that the projected completion date depends upon full stakeholder participation (although those are important too.) Today, I want to share the power of language that PMs use when they interact with their teams (and, secondarily, their clients.) Here are 3 things that PMs (but really anyone in the working world) should stop saying:

  1. Guys. I'm guilty of this one. Although I interpret the phrase "guys" as a gender neutral pronoun, not everyone does. Many alternatives exist, like everyone, all, or team. By the way, please NEVER say "guys and gals." This makes me think that you recently learned women have jobs now, too. The secret's out. We do.

  2. Ladies or gentlemen. Add this to my personal list of things to stop saying as well. If I'm writing to a group of female colleagues, I'll say ladies; if a group of male colleagues, gentlemen. Seems harmless enough, right? Wrong. First of all, when managing a global project, in particular, some first names may not be evidently male or female. Save yourself the headache of guessing. In the second place, you shouldn't presume to know how calling this out may impact one of your team members. Opt for "all" or "team" or another gender-neutral pronoun instead.

  3. Girls, when referring to a female over the age of 18. We have to stop this. The reality is females in the workforce are over 18. Also, think about the last time you heard someone refer to a group of males as "boys." You'll likely conclude this description was not used at work. So, that leaves us with men...and girls? The news these days suggests this is not a good look.

Now that you know what not to say, give yourself a pat on the back for continuing to say these 2 things that PMs should never stop saying:

  1. We. When I became a PM, many well-intentioned people told me that I needed to be crystal clear in setting expectations for my staff. When reviewing a deliverable, I was told, I should specify in my comments the action that I wanted the author to take (e.g., Sally, please change the tone in paragraph 2.) My instinct was to write "Sally, let's change the tone in this section" or "we should think about tone here". I found myself hitting the backspace key a lot in an effort to break this habit. Now, I don't. We are a team. And the product is not mine to fix. It's ours to create.

  2. I don't know. Supposedly, saying you don't know or answering "maybe" to a question is infuriating for staff to hear. Well, I hate to break it to you, but there's a lot of uncertainty in the world. If I don't know the answer to something, I shouldn't pretend I do. That's why teams exist in the first place--to help fill the gaps in one person's knowledge. Additionally, there are many questions that can only be answered with "maybe" or "it depends." For example: "Should I ask Emmett to develop the outline?" "That may be a good idea, but I don't know if he has time available. Can you check?" That's a perfectly reasonable answer that empowers your staff to solve problems independently. It also acknowledges that you're only human, which breeds empathy. Which, in turn, makes you a better project manager.