Bite Your Tongue – Career Killing Comments

No one is immune to verbal blunders. Putting your foot in your mouth — whether consciously or accidentally — is easy to do, and as a result we get to observe the aftermath.

But can just any slip of the tongue be fatal to your career, or are there some comments that are far more damaging than others?

We ran a survey to find out the top five career-killing comments, our data is from some 800 respondents who told us a story of a catastrophic conversations they either committed or observed.

1) Suicide BY FEEDBACK:

What it looks like:

“A new coworker made suggestions to a technical process in a department meeting. Although he was more than qualified and his comments had merit, the manager took the suggestion as a personal insult. He verbally attacked this coworker and put him in his place in front of everyone — effectively shutting down all other constructive comments from then on. My coworker spent the next year trying to dig himself out of a hole. Everyone was afraid to associate or collaborate too closely with him in case of retribution. He was eventually pillaged by another firm that recognised his technical skills.”

2) GOSSIP Karma:

What it looks like:

“A friend and school teacher thought she was ‘talking’ in private on Facebook and made an insensitive (presumably funny) comment about all kids being ‘germ bags’, meaning they bring their germs to school. As luck had it, her social media privacy filters were turned off without her knowing it. Parents of her students saw the comment and were outraged. They went to the school administration and she was asked to resign her position. Her confidence was shattered. It has been very hard for her to find another position in a school system.”

3) Taboo TOPICS:

What it looks like:

“A male coworker made an inappropriate sexual comment about an older female coworker. He said it too loud and more people heard it than he intended. He was the first to go in layoffs that happened a few months later.”

4) WORD Rage:

What it looks like:

“I watched a colleague tell his manager that he didn’t know what he was talking about while in a technical meeting with other team members. After he verbally assaulted his manager he got up and stormed out of the room. He was asked to leave that afternoon.”

5) “REPLY ALL” Blunders.

What it looks like:

“About six or seven people were in an in-person meeting and one person was remote. At one point, we did a screenshare with the remote person so she could show something to the group. After a while, she evidently forgot she was sharing her screen. She started a separate messaging conversation with her boss.

“I (Scott) was the official leader of the meeting, but was still new to the organisation and this was one of my first times leading this meeting. She chatted her boss, ‘Do you think it is possible Scott could be more incompetent than the previous person in this role?’ To which her boss responded, ‘Ha ha! Doubtful, but we’ll see.’ My predecessor in this role was in the meeting too. Finally, someone said, ‘Emily, did you know you are still screen sharing?’ She quickly took it down and tried to offer a quick, subtle apology. Apparently, there were other issues with Emily’s boss and this was the straw that put him over the edge. Within two weeks of this incident, he was terminated.”

6) The Damage

You can literally ruin your career with just a few words. In some cases, these comments reveal people’s incompetence to perform their job, their unsavoury moral compass, or their true colours which may be ill-suited for the team dynamics or corporate culture. And when it comes to discrimination, racism, or violence, there are clearly comments that should never be tolerated in the workplace — or any place.

Yet so many of these comments are uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who maybe just had a bad day. Every one of us is bound to make an unintentional slip of the tongue or misjudge a situation at some point during our career. And when you introduce technology into the communication equation, all sorts of things can go wrong despite our best intentions.

When, not if, we put our foot in our mouth, what can we do to ensure our verbal blunders aren’t catastrophic, but recoverable?

We’ve spent the last thirty years researching the nuances of communication and the skills used by the best of the best. We wrote an entire book about this research called Crucial Conversations. What we found is that the most influential leaders, when in the midst of a crucial conversation (high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions), know how to communicate their real intentions both honestly and respectfully. And what could have higher stakes and stronger emotions than finding yourself at the tail-end of an unintentional catastrophic comment?

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