This is a new day and a new year, and you can kick it off right by using the 11 phrases and phrase starters that I provide below to demonstrate exceptional leadership, effective communication and to actually transform your culture!
Communication, leadership, culture and strategy – these four topics stay [or should stay] on the minds of every effective executive and manager. Why? Because we get it now. We have learned that if we get these things right, everything from service to teamwork to productivity and sales are exponentially improved. We know that nothing happens without people, and people are most engaged, productive, and committed when we feel appreciated and rewarded for our contributions.
What is amazing though is that even though we know this, research continues to suggest that employees and teams are highly disengaged and unmotivated. If you want to change this then commit to incorporate these 11 phrases and phrase starters this year and beyond!

I understand that… OR I understand you…

In communication, when you engage in a conversation with one or more people and follow up with a phrase like “I understand that [fill in the blank with points of the conversation that you understood]” you are demonstrating that that you “heard” the message.
This phrase starter is great for validating the needs, feelings or proposals of another, and when you use it, you are demonstrating an excellent communication technique. Your team will take notice and will appreciate being heard even when you make a decision contrary to the message that was sent.

I respect you for… OR I respect the way…

Most, if not all of us, want to be respected, and even though showing respect requires more than lip service, it is nice still when we can actually confirm with the use of words that we do indeed respect a team member. Use this phrase starter to highlight a behavior or way of thinking that you value and respect, even when/if you disagree with it.
Use this as a way to share with your team member what you care most about. He will gain insights into what you value and, more than likely, will try to repeat the behavior in the future.

I trust that you can… OR I trust that you will…

If you are a micromanager, force yourself to use this phrase at least once a week. Let your team know that you need them – that you need their help too. People want to use their talents and make contributions toward goal accomplishment. In order to do so, they need space to actually be creative, to think of options and to make the plays that will lead to the desired results.
Invite your team members to help define the goals. Share an outline of what the end should look like and then get out of the way and let them shine! Your staff will come to see that you actually do trust them.

You are right. OR I was wrong.

Leaders don’t always have the answers. Encourage your team to have respectful debate with you and with one another. Teams are formed when members feel comfortable with conflict and safe to disagree with one another and their supervisor. Show your strength and courage as a leader by being willing to admit that someone else was right on something and/or that you were wrong. Allow a little bit of your vulnerability to come through; it builds relationships.
This is again another opportunity to show your team that you need them. Your staff will see you as a more powerful leader – not a weaker one – and they will appreciate being able to honestly contribute their own thoughts and ideas to the conversation.

Sorry, it was my mistake.

The two sides of the leadership coin – (1) we should stand ready to accept responsibility for the failures, and (2) we should share responsibility and spread praise for the successes. When something goes wrong under your watch, you will need to own the mistake. Sure, find out all the details and deal with individuals accordingly but, ultimately, you as the leader will need to apologize and acknowledge your mistake somewhere in it – even if it was to hire the wrong person for the task in the first place.

I have time for…

This little phrase packs a whole bunch of “you matter to me” in it. When you tell your team that you have time for something that they indicated they wanted to do, discuss or work on, you are getting huge leadership points. You fill in the back side of this starter phrase with anything that matters to the team, and the big take away they will leave with is “I matter – we matter.”
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of “First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently,” state in their book that one of the best things your team can give you is the benefit of the doubt. I agree. When you show your team they matter, they want to show you that you matter too by giving you the benefit of the doubt in times of ambiguity and change. Again, people want to matter so make time for your team’s needs this year.

What do you think? OR How would you handle it?

It is not your job as the supervisor to come up with all the answers. In fact, effective leaders don’t share the answers so easily even when they do know them. Why would a leader withhold the answers? To develop her team members and get the benefit of their ideas and objections.
When a leader asks people what they think or how they’d handle something, you are prompting growth and innovation, developing critical thinking skills and encouraging others to give input. By asking these questions, you develop other leaders and create a culture of trust.

I am open to…

So often we talk about managing and navigating change without ever having sent the message to our teams that we are even open to change or to doing things differently than they are currently being done. Don’t make your team guess all the time. Clearly indicate your willingness to try his/her idea or a new process by saying “I am open to [fill it in with whatever you are willing to do]. By using this phrase when appropriate, the team will start to see you as “change” instead of someone who just talks about it.

Thank you for… OR I appreciate you for…

This one seems simple enough right? However, more often than not, people say ‘thank you’ without actually expressing exactly what the person did that pleased them. Feedback is great when it is specific, timely, actionable and balanced so be sure to say “thank you for [fill it in with the specific behavior or result that matters]. Give out your thank yous as prompt as possible after an event, and remind the team member why and/or how that behavior or result supports organizational strategy.

You can do it; I believe in you.

One of my former supervisors would often tell me “Terina, you can do it; I believe in you.” I smile even now as I type this here because it always made me feel good to hear it – as if he had my back. When you are developing a high-potential employee or emerging leader by giving her a whole bunch of ‘stretch’ assignments, the message is that you believe she can do it, but never underestimate the power that comes with actually saying the words.
I would get these stretch tasks and sometimes I’d express nervousness or say that it might be too much too fast. My supervisor’s confidence in my talents and abilities helped to minimize my nerves. Show your team members that you believe in them, and they will want to rise to meet or exceed your expectations.

May I help you? OR How can I help you?

Be intentional about asking these questions. Supervisors shouldn’t assume that staff will just up and come to you when/if they need help. You need to make it clear that you really want to help and that you don’t view others as weaker or less competent for needing help in the first place.
If you have a bent toward seeing questions and those who need assistance as weak or somehow failing, first, your staff has surely picked up on this, and they will not likely come to you for help even when needed. Second, I highly recommend you read this article about the importance of learning, unlearning, asking questions and learning some more.
As a leader, you will want to be out front with your offers to help and create a learning environment where those who seek and/or accept help are praised for doing so. Being willing to learn and change are things high-performers do well.

You tell me –

  • Are you currently using any of these phrases with your team? What would you add to the list?
  • As a team member, does your supervisor/team leader use these phrases with you?
  • How intentional will you be to incorporate these throughout the year to engage with and develop your staff?


Updated December 14, 2018 and originally published January 1, 2015

Terina Allen
CEO, ARVis Institute
International Speaker | Strategist | Management Consultant | Educator | Author