Look out for those “whatever…” responses

“Look out for those ‘whatever…’ responses.” I remember hearing this advice at a class about parenting teenagers. As the speaker explained how teens will tell you that they couldn’t care less by rolling their eyes, saying “whatever,” or just shaking their head while they leave the room, I found myself drifting off, thinking about work. Why? Because I was hearing the corporate equivalent of “whatever” in my group, which sounds like this: “Just tell me what to do.”

Over my career, I’ve unfortunately heard the phrase “Just tell me what to do” a few too many times. Perhaps you have seen this reaction at work as well? It might have come from a decision that someone didn’t agree with, or a process that wasn’t meeting their needs yet couldn’t be updated. It might have been directed at a customer who was impossible to please. Or, in the case with my group, I chalked it up to a supervisor who regularly micro-managed his team, never satisfied with the work they did. Regardless of the situation, “Just tell me what to do” is a warning sign that the employee feels they can’t be successful, no matter what. As a leader, you need to treat it as a red flag.

To better understand why teens say “whatever,” I looked to psychologist Michael Bradley, author of  Yes, Your Teen is Crazy.  In this book, Dr. Bradley explains that at some point, most teens realize that they’ve already learned the most important teachings from their parents, and they need to look to other sources for opinions on clothes, music, and even ethics. It’s a healthy part of becoming their own person, but it can be really hard on the parents. Especially if the teenager is doing it with dramatic eye rolling, the silent treatment, or those “whatever” responses.

When an employee says, “Just tell me what to do,” have they reached a similar wall where they no longer feel they can learn from their supervisor? Probably. If you want to keep them engaged with your business, talk to them about getting a mentor, taking on a stretch assignment, or applying for a different position at your company. Help them to find a situation where they can learn. Otherwise, they’re going to start looking for a new job elsewhere.

Have you seen the corporate equivalent of the “whatever” response? What have you done to address it? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Look out for those “whatever…” responses

  1. Very good point. I was once at a lunch table with a micromanaging manager and his very well intentioned employee, who was also my friend. The manager did not really know what he wanted and for months, he was making my friend’s life difficult by turning down every proposal he brought forward. He really did not know how to help the manager, actually nobody did. The company was in a transition and the manager had already decided to get rid of him while he was in a limbo. At that lunch table, finally my friend gave up and asked the what-do-you-want-me-to-do question. The answer was very illustrative ‘I am not going to do your job for you’. My friend did really want to know because it was impossible to please his boss but no answer was given. In such a catch22 situation the employee has no choice. What I am trying to say is if the leader is getting this phrase, it may well be that he or she is giving the employee the sign that there is no help from the leadership hence it is not working out.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Umit. You’re saying that, consciously or subconsciously, some leaders can create an environment where it’s impossible to succeed…regardless of how hard you try. And, even if you seek their help, they aren’t going to give it to you. How very frustrating!

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