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The four-letter word that will damage your credibility at work


If you're anything like us, you'll flower your every day work speak with tentative little qualifications to keep things polite and friendly.

"If you wouldn't mind...", "but don't worry if not...", "can I just..."

According to one career strategist, it's this last word that creates the most damage.

Ellen Petry Leanse

Ellen Petry Leanse

San Francisco-based startup advisor Ellen Petry Leanse says that women in particular have a propensity to utter the word "just" in an uncertain or apologetic sense - and that doing so undermines our credibility at work.

Leanse, who has held prominent roles at Apple and Google, says she first noticed "just" being used a lot among women, when she left Google and joined a company with a high ratio of female to male employees.

"I'd never really noted a high concentration of 'just' before, so I thought it might be my imagination. But soon I knew my hunch was legit. 'Just' just kept showing up way too frequently," she writes, in a recent column for Business Insider

"It hit me that there was something about the word I didn't like. It was a 'permission' word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking "Can I get something I need from you?'"

It's just not good enough that we're all using 'just'

It's just not good enough that we're all using 'just'

"I am all about respectful communication," Leanse goes on. "Yet I began to notice that 'just' wasn't about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.

"And as I began to pay attention, I was astonished — believe me — at how often I used the word."

Leanse offers examples (that ring true for us, too) such as "I just wanted to check in on …", "Just wondering if you'd decided between …", "If you can just give me an answer, then …" and "I'm just following up on …",

She says she and her team agreed to a moratorium on the word 'just' in a work context. 

"It did we felt a change in our communication — even our confidence. We didn't dilute our messages with a word that weakened them," she says. 

"It was subtle, but small changes can spark big differences. I believe it helped strengthen our conviction, better reflecting the decisiveness, preparedness, and impact that reflected our brand."

Leanse suggests others follow suit: "Take the word out of your sentences and see if you note a difference in your clarity — and even the beliefs that fuel the things you say".

On that note, come see six other words and phrases you should avoid in the workplace. A woman is only as good as her word, after all. 

Words: ThinkStock



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