Do business leaders really need to be told that “I don’t care” isn’t a good phrase to use with employees?


You might think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised. Depending on the tone and the context, “I don’t care” could be mistaken for an empowering phrase.


“Hey boss, what color should we paint the wall?”


I don’t care!


“Hey boss, what should we order for lunch?”


I don’t care!


The boss thinks he’s empowering the employees by saying he doesn’t care. He’s letting them know that they’re free to make whatever decision they want. And maybe that’s what he’s trying to do.


But this isn’t the way to do it.


First of all, no one really wants the boss not to care – whether it’s about a lunch order or the pursuit of a crucial new piece of business. That’s not to say you want the boss micromanaging every decision, or that you don’t want the boss trusting you to exercise your own best judgment.


And if you’re the boss, you want to make it clear when you expect people to make their own decisions.


But consider the way people will react if they come to the boss for input on a decision, and they’re told by the boss that he or she doesn’t care.


One scenario might be that it’s clearly the employee’s job to make the decision. At least this is clear to the boss. If the employee is coming to the boss looking for direction, that could mean one of several things. One is that the employee doesn’t really believe the boss trusts him or her to make the call, and lacks the confidence to make the call for fear of what the boss will come back and say.


If this is the case, then the boss needs to make it clear: I expect you to make this decision, and I will support you when you do.


“I don’t care,” or “Whatever,” or any other similar expression, is not how you communicate that.


Maybe the employee is asking for the boss’s input because he or she wants clarity on how the boss’s priorities should be applied to this decision. It may not be that the employee is unwilling to make the decision, but rather he or she simply wants to double-check and make sure the decision under consideration lines up with the boss’s overall thinking.


If that’s the case, the boss needs to try to understand why the input is being sought, and make it clear that providing this input doesn’t relieve the employee of the responsibility to make the decision.


If you hire people to make decisions, and they’re always coming to you, then you might as well be making the decisions yourself. But you need to respect and honor the employee’s desire to clarify your thinking and priorities, even while embracing their own responsibility to make the call.


There’s another reason you don’t say, “I don’t care” or some variation of it. If you’re married, you know that sometimes spouses expect each other to be mind readers. This is probably not the best way for husbands and wives to communicate, but it happens. How many times does a wife tell her husband, “It’s fine,” and if he’s smart he’ll understand it is most definitely not fine?


Maybe that cryptic form of communication can work in some marriages. You don’t want to try it in business. And employees will start to recognize when your words don’t match your feelings.


“I don’t care” might literally mean you have no preference, but it can also take the form of a passive-aggressive indictment of someone’s actions, or of their very position within the company. Once employees suspect you’re not telling them what you really mean, they’ll start the game of trying to interpret your true intentions.


Maybe they’ll get it right. Maybe they won’t. Do you want to take that risk?


There is nothing that should happen within your company that you don’t care about. That doesn’t mean you have to personally seize control of every little function or detail, but you should care about what happens. And you should care about giving others the proper response to what they may be asking you. It’s unsettling to your team if they get the impression that you don’t care.


So it’s up to you to find clearer and more affirming ways to tell your team you trust them to make decisions. They want to make decisions that advance your vision of the company, and your principles and priorities.


Make it clear to them what those are. Make it just as clear to them that you expect them to make day-to-day decisions based on them, and also based on their own instincts and experience. Finally, make it clear to them that you’ll back them up when they make decisions, because that is exactly what you hired them to do.


Written By: Wade Wyant

Red Wagon Advisors