The Most Dangerous Word to Use in the Workplace

What is the one thing you can count on a supervisor saying in 99 percent of all performance evaluations?


It probably comes in the form of: “You can ‘try’’ harder” or “Maybe you should ‘try’ to do…” or “Give this a ‘try’…”

But that little three letter word – Try – is a very dangerous word. Remember what Jedi Master Yoda from Star Wars said?

The words you choose have great impact

Fortune had a great article on the use of the word “try” recently:

Whether in a job interview, on a resume, or in the office, try simply shows a lack of belief, passion, commitment, and confidence — all the qualities you need to succeed in today’s tight job market. Grammarly’s contextual thesaurus has a whopping 66 different synonyms for try, yet none of them are as convincing as words like do, believe, act, tackle, accomplish, or succeed. While try might get you 10 percent, or even halfway there, employers are looking for strong problem solving skills and unwavering dedication.”

I cringe when I hear, “I’ll give it a try,” because the phrase suggests failure. “I’ll do it” inspires confidence every time.”

When I coach supervisors on delivering performance feedback, this is a concept I work hard on getting them to understand – the words you choose to use have great impact. Also, the words they allow the employee to respond with sets them up for future success or failure.

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Getting the performance they (and you) want

One thing I’ve always done with performance feedback is allow the employee to give me their performance objectives instead of dictating what performance I expect. How I coach the performance, though, is to frequently help in rewording their objectives with the words that are going to ensure they go after the performance they want and not to “try’”and get the performance they want.

This might seem a bit nit-picky to some, but using words the convey conviction of a goal do wonders for setting someone off on the right track to reaching that goal.

I can’t say it any better than Yoda, Jedi Master: “Do, or do not. There is no Try.”

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


9 Comments on “The Most Dangerous Word to Use in the Workplace

  1. I couldn’t agree more. The words we choose to use and the words we allow others to get away with using speak volumes about where our hearts and minds are at. We need to be much more careful about how we express ourselves, and to examine the words we use for the underlying source: Why do I say “try?” Do I really believe I can do this, or am I just doing my best to convince myself? The words we use can go a long way to helping us understand our own strengths and self image.

    1. Chad –

      My mom always use to say “Bad things happen in 3’s” – and one day she says this to me and I go “No they don’t! It doesn’t have to be that way – they can happen in 1’s or 2’s or 20’s!” Bad things aren’t contagious – bad thinking is! Amazing how are words shape our behavior!


  2. Very good Tim. This word is one of the 5 words I caution all clients about; however, I would disagree with Fortune’s assessment of the word. You’ve inspired me to write about it…

  3. Personally I was thinking that “try” is a word for commitment and willingness to do something you never did before. But I also agree that “try” can means a lack of belief or confidence. I guess it’s just depends on how you see it and perceive it.

  4. Context. Yes, words do affect actions. They are also reflections of beliefs. What about this phrase: “We don’t expect kittens to fight wildcats and win. We merely expect them to try”. What does that mean? The phrase is from the old sci-fi book “Starship Troopers”. It describes an attitude of “I’ll give it all I’ve got” even if you’re not sure you can. Specifically talking about recruits in training, in the book.

  5. Going beyond the emotional aspects of Try vs. Do, I feel a problem with Try is that it’s used when people are committing to do something without an understanding of how they’re going to get it done.

    “I will try to get X project done.” Likely means that the speaker has unresolved questions about the project, or his ability to deliver it. This could range from resource issues (“I will try to get X done, but I need Bob and he’s knee-deep in an ERP implementation”), skill issues (“I really have no idea how to get this thing done.”) to capacity issues (“I’d love to get this done, but I have 300 hours of work to do in a month.”).

    So use “Try” as a starting point to uncover the real issues.

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