I’ve been working in Silicon Valley for a decade, at both startups and top publications.
Throughout my career I’ve noticed that, under the guise of professionalism, bosses don’t always say what they mean.
Whether you’re new to the workforce or you’ve logged years of experience, there is comfort in knowing you aren’t alone in your confusion.
If you feel like you need an interpreter to make sense of what your boss is telling you, check out these common phrases and their translations:
1. ‘Are you busy?’
It’s tempting to (incorrectly) interpret this question as an attempt to gauge your overall workload. However, it’s often simply an opening statement. Your boss wants to discuss something, but he or she doesn’t want to presume you’re free to have a conversation that second.
The message behind it? You should probably just drop what you’re doing and let your boss talk. Simply say you’re busy, but make it clear you can set aside a few minutes to discuss whatever is on your boss’s mind.
2. ‘I need you to really put in an effort with this one.’
On the surface, this can come across as an insult, especially if you’re the type of worker who always gives a task your all.
Back in my TV-producing days, my news director would stick her head around the corner and drop this phrase on me about a story I was writing. It infuriated me. Didn’t she realize that I always gave my best effort?
It took time to realize that when the boss says this, it’s most likely meant to emphasize the importance of the project being discussed, not your performance. It could be a particularly difficult client, or someone who would bring big money into the company if all goes well.
Rather than saying your normal efforts are lackluster, your boss is probably just letting you know the stakes are higher than usual.
3. ‘Moving forward …’
These two words often appear as part of a discussion of something you’ve been doing incorrectly. It may or may not be your fault.
Your boss might be saying that there’s no point in reliving previous results, but from this point forward, you should take a different series of actions.
When bosses first told me things like that, I felt they were being insensitive. Eventually, I realized I shouldn’t take it personally and instead see it as a chance to improve.
4. ‘We need you to take ownership of your work.’
This one can be especially confusing, but usually it means your boss wants you to hold yourself more accountable. Your boss may want you to care more about whether or not the end product gets results, rather than just doing what you’ve been told.
This could be a good sign, because it indicates that your boss sees you as being able to handle responsibility.
For practice, imagine you’re running your own business, and your success or failure depends on the quality of work you do. This type of thinking can dramatically improve the impression you make.
5. ‘Just see what you can get done.’
If you’re like many of today’s professionals, you likely have more work than you can accomplish in a given day or week. Yet, your boss probably continues to add to that.
When it’s obvious that you’re overwhelmed, and your boss has more work for you, he or she might make it seem as though it’s OK to simply “do your best” to finish it on time. Don’t fall for this.
On the due date, your boss will still expect you to have the project completed — and will be disappointed if you don’t.
6. ‘You should think about whether this is the job you want.’
If you’re hearing these words, you’ve likely taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way.
Perhaps your attitude is coming across as too negative. Are you feeling uninspired and dissatisfied? People can probably see that. Maybe you’re suffering from burnout and need to take a step back and investigate how to remedy that problem. Overall, you’ll likely need to make serious changes to the way you’re coming across if you want to keep your job.
Communication is an important part of any job. However, your boss’s efforts to remain professional at all times can make it difficult to decipher what they mean.
If you can learn to read between the lines and adjust to what they want, you’ll likely go far in your career.