One Word Leaders Should Never Use

Today’s guest post is by Mike Figliuolo, (@thoughtLEADERS) the author of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy by clicking here).  You can learn more about Mike and his book at the end of the post.  Here’s Mike:

I hate the use of the word “just” in front of anyone’s title.

“He’s just an analyst.”

“She’s just a cafeteria worker.”

“I’m just an administrative assistant.”

No one is just anything. The phrase is demeaning and pejorative. We’re all people – we happen to have different responsibilities.

The connotation of just is that someone is worth less than someone else. As if that just someone has a defect. One of the most powerful leadership skills I’ve seen and used is valuing everyone’s contributions equally.

How do you do that? Simple – treat everyone like a person and an equal first and foremost. The work sorts itself out in the end.  As I discuss in my leadership book One Piece of Paper, knowing and treating your people as individuals is one of the most critical leadership skills out there. When you treat them like individuals, they tend to trust you more.  While you might think your people trust you, if you don’t have that close relationship with them, they probably don’t (and if you’d like to do a quick gut check, take the Trusted Leader Assessment).

You must know and treat those around you as individuals.

For example, I walked by a Senior Vice President’s office one day. I knew his assistant – she was a wonderful lady. We got to talking and she mentioned a problem she saw regarding how assistants were paid. I told her “You see it, you own it. Raise the issue and see if you can get it fixed.”

“But I’m just an admin.”I promptly and pointedly corrected her. “No. You’re an admin for a senior vice president. The word ‘just’ is not in your job description. You know what’s wrong. You know who can fix it and what the right answer is. The thing is, if you act like you don’t deserve a seat at the table, you’ll never get one.”

Later that day, she raised the issue with the SVP. He was completely unaware the problem existed. Needless to say, said admin led the team that eventually put the fix in place.

Just is a simple yet incredibly damaging word. If you find yourself using it in the context of your own title, make a conscious effort to stop. All you’re doing is devaluing yourself.

More important, take off the lens of just when you look at others. Example: he’s not just a cafeteria worker… His name is Angel and he’s a great guy who always has a smile on. He reliably fills the coffee machine every day and takes great pride in his work. He is polite and customer focused. He makes a great grilled provolone on white sandwich (my comfort food). Maybe you should take a moment to get to know him.

It’s funny – once you remove the just blinders, you learn things. I don’t see just a cafeteria worker. I see Angel – the model of customer service. I wish I had 300 of him working in my customer service call centers. If I did, I’d never have a customer service issue that wasn’t solved quickly, politely and correctly.

There’s a side benefit to this approach – people will see how you treat others and decide whether they want to work for you or not. If they see you act high and mighty because everyone is just beneath you, you’re going to have a hard time building a following. Conversely, if people see you treat everyone around you with dignity and respect, they’ll at least consider following you and give you the benefit of the doubt in your interactions with them.

Just is a poisonous word in the context of people. Make it go away.

-   Mike Figliuolo is the author of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy by clicking here).  He’s the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC – a leadership development firm.  An Honor Graduate from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat arms officer. Before founding his own company, he was an assistant professor at Duke University, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and an executive at Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro.  He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.

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