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What not to say when things go wrong at work (and what to say instead)

Philip Shepherd

29th May 2019

No matter what your job, you will have relationships with others that must be kept healthy. Whether that’s interdepartmental relations or how you speak to your customers, it’s important to be careful with your words—especially when something has gone wrong.

There are some obvious things that you shouldn’t say in the workplace, and bursts of anger or insults are clearly a no-no. However, even the most innocent of phrases can cause unnecessary friction.

Take a look at these things you should never say when something goes wrong at work, and what you should say instead.

I did my best…

We’re often told that all we can do is try our best. Unfortunately, sometimes that still isn’t good enough.

If you’ve done the best job you possibly can on something and it still hasn’t worked out, it can be very disheartening. However, rather than viewing this as a failure, view it as a learning opportunity.

By constantly learning, trying new things and, yes, even by failing, you can make tomorrow’s best even better than today’s.

Instead of saying “I did my best” try saying “What can I do better next time?”

Saying “I did my best” can come off as being quite defensive and closed off. “What can I do better next time?” shows that you’re ready to learn and willing to do what you can to help the business in the future.

You should have…

If something has gone wrong because one of your colleagues made the wrong call, it’s easy to get frustrated. However, playing the blame game isn’t going to fix things.

You might think that you’re giving them a learning experience by telling them what they should have done instead, but but this can sound very judgemental. Even if what you say is objectively right, it’s very unprofessional to place blame on someone. After all, they made the mistake based on their own best judgement.

Instead of saying “You should have…” try saying “Next time, I’d recommend…”

By giving constructive criticism, you can help your colleague to avoid the same issue in the future. Make sure that you say what you recommend or what you think would work rather than what they “should have” done. There’s rarely one right way to do things.

I’m sorry but…

When you’re apologising for something, try to really think about what you’re saying—and don’t make excuses. Although saying “I’m sorry but…” is easily done, adding “but” strips the apology of its sincerity.

Even if your actions were well intentioned, find a way to explain them without making an excuse. Make your two main focuses sincerity and personal improvement.

Instead of saying “I’m sorry but…” try saying: “I’m sorry about that. Next time, I will…”

When giving a sincere apology, you should express remorse, admit responsibility, and commit to doing better in the future.

Don’t try to shift the blame for what happened or make excuses. Show

that you understand what went wrong and how you can improve things. Forced apologies and weak promises won’t do anything to improve relations.

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Philip Shepherd

Philip Shepherd

Founder & CEO

Philip specialises in: Senior, Director and C-Level roles in Digital Marketing

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020 7183 7145