What’s Your Boss Really Saying?

4 min read.

After completing your work at the office, you let your boss vet through it. He comes back saying, “this is not too bad”. You walk away happily, thinking your work is up to scratch and cleared.

Think again. Everyone loves being complimented and praised for a good job. The feeling is augmented when this same praise comes from one’s boss, as oftentimes it means greater favor and hence greater prospects for a pay rise or promotion in due course. Unfortunately, under most circumstances, your boss will never blatantly tell you what he or she thinks because your boss might still want to be motivating and supportive, or to be perceived as “good and caring”. Not only that, different bosses have various working styles and personalities, which means you may find that what worked in your previous organization fails abjectly in your new company. For instance, the informal culture that is the bread and butter of startups is often the antithesis to a bureaucratic government agency like the Department of Foreign Affairs, with its formalities and diplomatic protocol.

All in all, it can be hard trying to guess the underlying meaning of what your boss says, so we’ve put together some day-to-day examples to help you out. Do keep in mind that our list is non-exhaustive and definitely not a one-size-fits-all. 

Here are 10 common phrases your boss might say to you, and what they could mean – 

  1. “You have a lot of potential.”

What it could mean: Your boss may think that your work is not up to standard and wants to galvanize you to work harder.

  1. “This task is truly difficult.”

What it could mean: Your boss may be encouraging you because this is an uphill task, but deep down he or she believes you have the caliber to rise to the occasion and take on a more challenging role for the company.

  1. “There is no rush in completing this task.”

What it could mean: It might be the case that the task is relatively trifling, which could be why your boss did not assign a hard deadline to it. Nonetheless, you should still plan your time wisely and complete the task as early as possible. After all, an employee who is always on task demonstrates a strong work ethic, and that can leave a good impression on your boss.

  1. “Let’s discuss this another time.”

What it could mean: Your boss may approve in part the work you are doing, but wants you to go back to the drawing board in order to be more convincing or detailed. Your boss may also be dismissive because the task at hand is no longer feasible and thus should be archived. To find out which interpretation is correct, try asking your boss for a follow-up meeting with a specific time and date, and see his or her reaction.

  1. “You make the call for this task.”

What it could mean: At first glance, it seems that your boss has a lot of confidence in you, hence the autonomy granted to call the shots. It could mean the task is relatively trivial, but be sure to not make any mistakes. Carelessness could easily be misconstrued as laziness and symbolic of a bad work ethic. The phrase could also mean that your boss wants to push you out of your comfort zone and have you take greater responsibility for your work.

  1. “Feel free to give me any feedback on what I just said.”

What it could mean: A common setting for this line is at a company meeting, where your boss asks the team for constructive criticism. Remember to avoid pointing out your boss’ flaws outrightly, especially in the presence of all your other co-workers. If you wish to give what you deem an honest opinion without filters, it would be better to let him or her know privately. Be as tactful and constructive as you would like your boss to be with you. Alternatively, this line could just be a common, neutral means to end a meeting — no one wants his or her boss to be a know-it-all.

  1. “The economic climate is bad.”

What it could mean: Take it as a warning to be extra careful with your spending because the company might be facing financial stress during the said period. As a hint, it could also mean that you and your colleagues might not be getting a pay raise or bonus any time soon. In the worst case scenario, somebody may be let off the payroll imminently.

  1. “Do you enjoy working here?”

What it could mean: Your boss could be genuinely curious about your experience in the company because he or she cares about your well-being and morale. Alternatively, your boss could have heard through the grapevine about negative comments you’ve made about the company. For example, you could have been lamenting over lunch to a colleague about how this is the fourth time in a week you had to work overtime, and someone might have reported it to the boss. Hence, your boss has called you in privately to clarify the rumors. 

  1. “That’s a good idea, I didn’t think of that before.”

What it could mean: You’ve come up with a brilliant original idea, suggestion or framework that your boss could not conceive. There’s in all likelihood only one interpretation – and it’s good. It might be a good idea to credit your boss as an inspiration for your idea, because you’ve learnt a lot from them.

  1. “You’re the __(insert skill here)__ expert!”

What it could mean: Another highly positive comment which connotes an air of indispensability surrounding your abilities or technical prowess. While being the resident guru of all things __(insert skill here)__ may be good most of the time, if you feel stifled from a lack of variety surrounding the tasks you’ve been given because of your specialization, make it known to your boss in a polite manner, by dressing it as a win-win situation for yourself and the company at large.

Conclusion

Every boss is unique. Some bosses do not dole out compliments or encouragement because they do not want their employees to expect a raise or promotion. Others might want to keep the relationship entirely professional, rather than risk a loss of authority. There are also many bosses who enjoy giving their employees words of encouragement and building a ‘family’ culture. While it is perfectly fine to appreciate the affirmation your boss has given you, be wary to not always take it to heart—there could be a deeper meaning behind the high praise you’ve received.