As an IT leader, you don’t enjoy complete freedom of speech. Beyond the words and phrases that will get you dragged down to HR on a discrimination claim, there are things you can’t say as an IT leader. Here are some of them.


The First Amendment guarantees everyone the freedom of speech. You can say anything you want as long as it’s not slanderous. Or discriminatory. Or violence inducing. Or…. well, you get the point.

Beyond the things that will get you hauled off to HR or worse, there are plenty of other things that you can’t say either. These things may not land you in jail or in the unemployment line, but they can cause damage to your career and reputation. Here are a few.

“This will solve all your problems…”

The first thing you need to be watchful for is that you don’t overpromise on a project or technology. You want to make sure that you can deliver on everything that you tell users you can accomplish. Naturally if you don’t, then they won’t trust anything you have to say.

You may already be careful not to intentionally overpromise, but you have to be equally careful not to accidentally overpromise. A user may misinterpret what you say you can do and set their own level of expectations. This happens quite often when users don’t understand technology as well as you do and don’t ask for clarifications. They’ll fill in their own blanks, mostly with ideas that aren’t realistic.

Be clear when discussing technologies or projects you’re working on. Don’t oversell what you’re trying to do to make yourself look good. At the same time, don’t let the user get an overinflated view of your abilities. In either case, when things don’t turn out as expected, you’ll have a lot of explaining to do, and your reputation will be tarnished.

“This will take (3 x reality) to accomplish…”

Along the same lines of overpromising on a project is sandbagging on it. It may be tempting to set goals and expectations so low that you achieve them with ease or exceed them by spectacular bounds. You may think that it makes you look like a hero, but eventually it will just make everything you say look suspect.

For a geeky example of what sandbagging does, think back to Star Trek: The Next Generation. As always, the warp drive goes down and Picard wants it fixed. Scotty from the original series just happens to be on board in a particular episode when this happens and Geordi gives Picard a time estimate. Scotty gives a sly smile and asks Geordi: “How long will it really take?”

Scotty is shocked when Geordi informs him that he told Picard the truth. He asks how Geordi is going to be viewed as a miracle worker when he tells people how long it will really take.

In a subsequent book that was set in the old series, the warp engine goes out on the Enterprise and Kirk asks Scotty to fix it. When Scotty tells him how long, Kirk divides the amount of time in his head by 2 and decides what to do next.

The exact same thing will happen if you consistently sandbag. You may look like a miracle worker in the short term, but eventually users will catch on. If you’re lucky, they’ll just not believe what you tell them. Worst-case scenario is that they’ll set their own internal goals and expectations, which are unachievable, and you’ll be in serious trouble when you can’t meet them.

“We’re never going to make it…”

The flipside of overpromising on a project is way, WAY underpromising on it, saying that it can’t be done or it will be difficult to accomplish. You want to be realistic when discussing project goals and objectives, but if you are consistently negative in your approach, it won’t bode well for you in the long term. You’ll wind up being labeled as either a whiner or just simply incompetent.

Naturally, you can’t always be bubbly and positive, but just be mindful of the amount of times that you’re saying “No.” Also be aware of the tone and words that you’re using when doing so. If a user’s expectations or desires are unrealistic, take time to say why and offer positive alternatives if possible. You want to be seen as someone who gets things done, not Mordac the Preventer from Dilbert.

“A ‘computer’ is like a car…”

By now you know, most of the people in your organization don’t know technology as well as you do. However, when explaining technology to them, don’t assume that the person you’re talking to has just graduated from kindergarten and oversimplify what you’re saying. This is the twenty-first century and most people have a passable understanding about how things work, with some naturally notorious exceptions.

Save the simplification for those exceptions. Just be sure to watch your tone when you do so. Don’t come across sounding like Mr. Rogers.

The exceptions are usually easy enough to spot, but don’t assume. If you’re not sure someone has a certain level of expertise, don’t be embarrassed to ask them how detailed they want you to be. And tell them politely to let you know if you’re oversimplifying.

On the flipside, make sure you’re not overusing computer jargon and terminology. All professionals, be they doctors, lawyers, or IT professionals, have a comfortable language that they use to talk to each other. Out of habit, sometimes we fall back on that language and jargon when talking to less technical people. Save the jargon for another IT professional.

People will feel more comfortable talking to you and will respect you more in the long run when they can understand what you’re saying.

“That’s not my job… “

Another sure thing you can say that will get you in trouble in the long run is to say, “It’s not my job” or “It’s not my fault.” Passing the buck or assigning blame when things go wrong will definitely get you in trouble in the long run.

Usually this is only a problem if you do it consistently, and especially when things are legitimately your problem. Most people will understand when things are out of your control, and they bring them to you. When that happens, try to find a way to put a positive spin on the problem and help the person find a solution. Don’t make it YOUR problem, but at the same time don’t be dismissive of the problem and the person doing the complaining.

Ultimately you want to look like a problem SOLVER in your organization. If you can’t solve problems when they’re presented to you, your users will find someone who can.

“We can speed up disk access by plugging our SATA drives into SCSI controllers…”

The final way that things you say can get you in trouble is just by saying stupid stuff. You are supposed to be a knowledgeable IT professional. Don’t make up facts or statistics to make your point. You can try to bluff people who don’t know as much as you do, but when they fact check you, you’ll be in trouble.

When you’re talking to people make sure you have your facts straight. Understand thoroughly what the technology is you’re discussing. Try not to confuse things or have to stumble around when answering questions. If you’re unsure, say so clearly, tell the person you’ll find out the information, and then make it a priority to follow through.

You’re paid to be the “expert” so make sure you come across as such. Even if you can’t know everything, make sure you’re a reliable source of information for those who need it by following up with timely, correct information.

The bottom line for IT leaders

Never forget — words mean things. The things you say to people matter as much as the things you do. To  some people, they mean more. If people can’t trust what you tell them, then your reputation and ultimately your career will suffer. Choose your words with care.

Forget about your First Amendment rights. Remember your Miranda rights. Everything you say can, and will, be used against you.