You hear it every day. You say it every day. It’s a seemingly inconspicuous single-syllable word, and yet it can undermine you and your team within a split second.
The culprit: just.
There are two ways that the word just is commonly used. One is acceptable. The other is dangerous.
An acceptable use is when the word is an adjective to describe a recent action or occurrence. “I just left the meeting; I’m on my way.”
Or “You’ll never believe it! I just saw Ryan Gossling at a café.” Everything is copacetic if just is used to mean something happened only a few moments ago.
Avoiding phrasing that's just plain ugly. But the ugly side of just is when it’s used to diminish the importance or difficulty of an activity. It is especially harmful when you are delegating. There is a distinct difference between saying, “I need you to head up this project” versus “I just need you to head up this project.”
By adding that one word, you have loaded your statement with subtext that says, “It shouldn’t be that difficult.” The truth could be that the project is very daunting, has a lot of moving parts and means an added workload and stress for your team. By using the slippery word just, you have --perhaps unintentionally -- colored your delegating with a passive-aggressive tone.
When you are giving orders, be clear. You may think that the word “just” softens the orders, hoping that you don’t sound too harsh. But the truth is that it probably results in members of your team feeling unappreciated for their effort and energy. After all, they are “just heading up a project,” right?
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Intervening with a CEO. I once sat in on a C-suite strategy meeting for one of my clients. My job was to simply observe, pay attention to team dynamics and see what could be improved in the leaders’ communication with one another and across the company.
After the meeting, I sat with the CEO for a recap. “So, what do you think?” the CEO said.
“I think that you’re making one simple mistake that you aren’t aware of, but it’s having a significant negative impact on your team,” I said.
“OK,” he said, leaning back in his chair putting up defenses.
“The good news is that it’s very easy to fix,” I said. This seemed to relax him. “When you are telling your team members what they need to do, you tend to pre-empt your orders with the word just. I don’t think that you noticed it, but when you used that word, some of your team members subtly rolled their eyes or let out a subtle scoff as they wrote down their tasks. They did it less when you didn’t use the word."
I continued, "Even if something doesn’t seem like a difficult task to you, there may be dynamics that you aren’t unaware of that make the task more challenging than your just implies. Too many 'justs' can build up resentment.”
He nodded in agreement and understanding. “I guess I didn’t notice that I do that,” he said.
Once this CEO became aware of the word's power, he found it very easy to cut it from his conversations and meetings. He later reported back that members of his team seemed to speak up more about details and problems.
I told him that I wasn’t too surprised since the "justs" would subtly close the door for further discussion. He later shared the lesson with members of his leadership team and encouraged them to do the same when communicating with others.
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Undercutting your own role. The just not only harms effective leadership communication; it can also put a damper on your gaining recognition and appreciation for work and effort.
Anytime you accomplish something, be aware of how you describe it to colleagues and superiors. If your statements are loaded with "justs," then you are undermining the value of your work and the amount of effort.
“Well, I just took care of all the loose ends.”
Or “I just talked with the team and just solved the problem.”
These "just" phrases weaken your statements tremendously. As a consultant, I see many different types of team dynamics across many companies. I have developed a knack for identifying who will climb the corporate ladder faster than others: One of the simple indicators is someone who takes strong ownership of what he or she says and does so with clear, straightforward statements. I also notice who weakens and diminishes his or her efforts with "justs."
If gaining recognition and appreciation for your work is a challenge, then you might need to take a closer look at your language. You might be subtly sending a signal that your work isn’t as valuable or worthy of praise if you are just-ing your way through it.
In general, "just" weakens your statements and undermines actions. Be aware of it and cut it out.