Why saying 'it's fine' is a business killer

You probably say it almost automatically, but if you want your company to succeed, you need to cut it out.

It's not entirely your fault if the words "It's fine" are defaults in your vocabulary. Honestly, it's not--social conditioning and deep psychological needs and fears both contribute to how much they escape your lips. Probably the most common reasons you might use them are

  • To reassure someone, such as if they drop something or interrupt you

  • To get people to leave you alone when you are upset or don't want to address an issue

  • To give praise or agreement

But as small as these words are, however harmless they initially might appear, they can devastate a business.

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Saying "it's fine" as a mode of reassurance is a bad idea.

  • Quite frankly, it doesn't do a very good job of reassuring. You might mean "Don't feel bad!" or "Go ahead!", but in simply saying "It's fine", you inevitably force everyone who is listening to acknowledge the mistake, actually drawing attention to it instead of minimizing it. Subsequently, because of what psychologists refer to as the "spotlight effect", the person who committed the error might feel only more self-conscious and embarrassed. When you're trying to make customers, shareholders or team members feel comfortable, that just doesn't work.

  • There are going to be times when, even though it might seem polite to say "It's fine," it's really not fine. Dropping a huge pile of files two minutes before a meeting is an actual problem, for example.

  • You don't want to inadvertently teach people that certain behaviors are acceptable, giving them subtle permission to ignore or abuse you, your policies or your protocols.

What people really need to release themselves from guilt and to move forward in these situations is compassionate empathy, coupled with assistance or reminders of expectations. It's compassionate empathy that gets them past their fear of being ostracized and isolated for the error, maintaining their sense of connection to you or your group. Assistance keeps them from feeling overwhelmed, and reminders acknowledge the mistake but, instead of leaving it at "No biggie!", clarify the behavior you want. Thus, you might exchange "It's fine" for statements like

  • "I forgive you--I've done it myself!"

  • "Everyone makes mistakes--I'll send you Document A as a reference for you."

  • "I felt the same way when I [x]. Let's see if we can..."

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Requesting people "drop it"

When people use "It's fine" to push an issue under the rug, typically,

  • They are afraid of being seen as a troublemaker for pointing out a problem. They are scared they'll be rejected for bringing up what's negative.

  • They are scared that, if they tell the truth, it will open a Pandora's box of additional problems and drive them into even worse feelings. The problem seems too big.

  • They don't want the hurt that comes from admitting things aren't perfect. They would rather stay in denial than accept those unpleasant feelings.

The trouble is, you generally can't fix a problem if you minimize and ignore it. And in business, ignoring a problem can grow into inefficient processes, lower morale, increased turnover, unstable finances, lower quality/productivity and reduced customer satisfaction. Safety even can become an issue when people bottle too much and then lash out. Additionally, people might be able to tell that you're not telling the truth, which means you come off as a liar rather than someone they can trust. (You know, all that stuff you hope to goodness you'll never experience.) So instead of giving in to fear and pretending everything is hunky dory when it isn't, say something like,

  • "I would feel more comfortable if [x]."

  • "Actually, I could use some help."

  • "I'd love to chat in private if we can."

  • "I'm concerned that [x]."

  • "Can you clarify your/our goal?"

  • "Have you considered [x]?"

  • "I feel like [x]."

Praise or agreement

Saying "It's fine" for praise or agreement is a business killer because it doesn't define what excellence means to you clearly enough. Fine compared to what? Does fine mean "for now"? What level are you at? Can you improve? How? Unless workers know why you're giving approval and where you want them to go, they'll quickly lose their sense of purpose in the business. And even if they know what you mean by "fine", you don't want things to be just "fine". You want them to be so ridiculously awesome that even the stars in the sky get scalded by what your team is doing. If you give yourself permission to settle for what's just "okay", the odds are pretty good that your team will follow your lead and settle, too. Try options such as

  • "We want your [metric] to be at [x] percent, so you're right on target."

  • "I'm really impressed by [x] right now. Why don't we see if you can [y] by [date]?"

  • "I think that will work until [date/event]."

  • "I was hoping you would [x]--this more than meets those expectations."

  • "We need you to [x], but based on [y], I've got confidence you'll get there."

The phrase "It's fine" has its place, but that place usually is not in business. You can be more open, specific and encouraging. Whenever you feel tempted to use these two little words, pause, think and reset.

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