The two words your boss never wants to hear from you

Ben Cohen/NBC | 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

I've been managing teams for about six years now, and there's one phrase I've grown to hate hearing from employees:

"Somebody should..."

Sometimes this phrase is followed by a very specific task or product improvement. Other times, it's a suggestion to change a process, either on our team or somewhere else in the company.

Employees who use this phrase think they're being helpful.

They think they're saying, "I'm a strategic and creative thinker who looks beyond the limits of my defined role and thinks of ways to improve the fortunes of the business overall. Please consider my larger value to the company when you think about my performance."

businessman frustrated
Troels Graugaard | E+ | Getty Images

But that's not what their boss hears.

Their boss hears, "I'd like to add another task to your to-do list."

That's because every time an employee introduces a suggestion with the phrase "somebody should," their boss has to do the following:

  • Find out if somebody else in some other part of the organization is already doing this, planning to do it or thinking about doing it
  • Think about whether the suggestion makes sense against the team's goals
  • Prioritize it against the other things that need to be accomplished
  • If it's not a priority for their team, figure out which other groups need to be looped in
  • If it is a priority, figure out who to assign it to

Remember, a boss also has a boss, as well as colleagues from other divisions who he or she has to get along with. And every time one of these people tells that boss, "Somebody should...," he or she hears "Figure out how to...." (Hopefully that manager's bosses and colleagues are more direct, but many are not.)

In fact, the last thing a boss wants is for one of their employees to give them yet another task, with no offer of help and no guidance or suggestions on how to accomplish it.

If you're the employee making the suggestion, best case scenario, your boss ignores you. Worst case, your boss begins to view you as an unhelpful pain — somebody too busy or too superior for the little mundane stuff, but happy to assign it to somebody else.

So how can you convince your boss to listen to your suggestions and give them a shot? Here are some ideas :

  • "I would like to explore a better way to do X. May I try doing it this way and see what happens?"
  • "I've noticed that nobody is doing X. I'd like to start doing it."
  • "I am having trouble doing part of my job because of X. Can you help me understand why we do it that way, and help me fix it?"
  • "I have an idea for something that's not related to our team but that I'd like to see the company do. Who is the best person to approach with this idea?"

In each of these cases, you're not only making a suggestion, you're explaining why you had this idea and, most significantly, offering to help. And in the long run, your boss is much more likely to remember and value what you do than what you say.

Remember: When it comes time for your performance review, there is no "somebody." You are the only "somebody" who matters.