Information Technology Dark Side

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The Forbidden Phrases

August 10th, 2006 · 3 Comments

What are the five words you absolutely can’t say at the office? What are the phrases that will bring you “on the carpet” (so to speak) faster than any other?

Is it “BS”? What about “sucks”? Or the dreaded eff bomb?

Heck no. I’ve heard these words used at all levels of organizations I’ve worked in. I appreciate the organizations that discourage the use of profanity in general, because I don’t like it (especcially the eff bomb). I also prefer an environment where it’s generally okay to say that something sucks – like when the hard drive on your laptop dies at the worst possible time, I want to be able to say “Man, this sucks!”. And, as a general rule, I’ve found that I can. Of course, most places aren’t very tolerant of saying “Man, you suck,” as I’ve already acknowledged.

So what are the truly forbidden phrases? In an unhealthy organization, the five words that will get you in the most trouble are…

“I don’t know.”


“I’m sorry.”

Most of the really bad problems that plague organizations like corporate IT will take a very hard stance against admissions of culpability such as these. This includes organizations that are

  • Driven by fear
  • Preoccupied with perception
  • Crippled by distrust
  • etc
  • In many organizations with these problems, admitting that you have made a mistake or that you are not omniscient of all things is going to trigger the most unhealthy behaviors of each of these organizations. In a fear-based organization, admitting a failure occurred because of something you did is tantamount to suicide. In one driven by perception, you will be disciplined, not because of the mistake you made, but because your admission of culpability harmed the perception of your organization.

    So, what should you do? Most people will tend toward the following types of behaviors when they have screwed up:

  • Obfuscation: Hiding their mistakes in a pile of inconclusive data
  • Finger pointing: Disguising their mistakes as being caused by the shoddy work of others
  • Blaming the System: Disguising their mistakes as being caused by an autocratic process beyond their control
  • Gaming the System: Abusing the organization’s “processes” to insulate them from the effect of their mistakes (i.e. CYA)
  • All of these approaches are unhealthy. It is very difficult to maintain enough perspective in an unhealthy environment to avoid these behaviors altogether, but they should be. Prolonged use of these behaviors will ultimately corrupt your integrity and undermine your ability to put the good of the organization first as a professional.

    So what do you do? These behaviors are toxic, and the longer you are exposed to them the more they seep into your own behaviors and emotional systems. How do you fight them?

    With reckless abandon, that’s how. Be the one person in the company who can admit you screwed up, or that you don’t know the answers. If you get beat down over it, start escalating it up the management chain, and ask probing questions, like this:

  • What is so bad about admitting mistakes?
  • Why can’t issues be discussed openly and candidly?
  • Isn’t the good of the company more important than the perceived effectiveness of your organization?
  • etc.

  • Don’t stop asking these questions until you are told to stop and there is no one left to escalate to, or you have found someone who is willing to join your risk-taking and change the organization. But if you can’t find a single person in the entire management chain of the organization with an interest in helping you, what then? Abandon hope and move on to another company, or wait for an organizational change that gives you a renewed opportunity to ask those questions with different results. Meanwhile, don’t stop being the one person in the company who is willing to use the forbidden phrases.

    “I’m sorry.” “I don’t know.”

    If you’ve been in corporate IT long enough, you’ve taken a few beatings, many of which you probably did not deserve. There are few things that suck worse than being blamed for something you could not have prevented, and being accountable for your own mistakes is NOT one of them.

    Relish the beatings that you have justly earned. Admit your culpability and apologize for the problems it’s caused. It is more important to maintain your own personal sense of ownership and accountability than it is to have a good performance review every year.

    Go down swinging for the fence.

    Note: I hope it’s obvious that my use of the word “beating” does not condone actual physical or verbal abuse of any kind. That’s not what I mean. If you are ever abused by your employer, you should escalate it up your management chain, and if no appropriate action is taken you should consider involving the legal system in resolving those matters. My use of the word beating is intended to mean bearing responsibility for the natural consequences of the mistakes we make, not endlessly enduring the unprofessional behavior of others without resistance.

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    3 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Information Technology Dark Side » Blog Archive » One More Forbidden Phrase… // Oct 31, 2006 at 8:37 pm

      […] Not too long ago I wrote about forbidden phrases, words you sometimes feel you’re not allowed to say. I listed “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry” as two phrases you’re just not allowed to use in some corporate IT environments. Over the weekend, I had an experience with my good friend Mike Kelly (you can read all about it on his blog) that prompted me to add one more phrase to my list of things you’re not allowed to say but should say anyway. No it’s not the “eff” bomb. I’ve never seen a work environment where you couldn’t get away with that occasionally, as much as I hate the word. […]

    • 2 education // May 26, 2010 at 9:12 am


    • 3 s // Sep 29, 2011 at 7:00 am

      Great post, good perspective on bringing back integrity and a good attitude into the workplace.

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