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Why employees hate 'having a quick chat' with their boss

Business leader instructing focused Indian female assistant. Serious and upset woman leaning head on hand and listening to boss during coffee break. Teamwork or company hierarchy concept
The reaction you have to certain phrases can depend on the kind of relationship you have with your manager. Photo: Getty

Certain phrases trigger our anxiety at work. It’s the “urgent” email from your boss landing in your inbox at 9pm, or the announcement of team building exercise on Zoom. Perhaps most triggering, though, are these six words: “Can we have a quick chat?”

It’s the moment when your boss unexpectedly arrives at your desk and asks if you have a few minutes to discuss something. You stop what you’re doing and follow them into a meeting room, wondering if you’re going to be asked to take on more projects, or if you’re going to be fired. And unsurprisingly, it sends our stress levels through the roof.

To find out which phrases stress us out the most, 807 staff members at the global training organisation The Knowledge Academy were asked to wear a heart rate tracker while working every day for six weeks. During the six-week trial, senior staff were told to say 16 common workplace phrases at random, including the dreaded “Let’s have a chat.”

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The staff were unaware of the experiment, but were told they would be asked to jot down their heart rate beats per minute at random times. However, it was after these certain phrases were said.

On average, the phrase “let’s have a chat” raised respondent heart rate beats per minute to 147 BPM — an 84% increase to the average resting heart rate beats per minute (80 BPM).

In second and third place were the phrases “Would you be able to do a presentation for us?” and “Can you share your findings in today’s meeting?” raising heart rates to an average 143 BPM and 138 BPM, respectively. “Just make it happen” and “Have you seen that urgent email” came in fourth and fifth.

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But why do we hate being asked for a quick chat so much?

Of course, the reaction you have to certain phrases can depend on the kind of relationship you have with your manager. If you get along well and they know you personally, you’re probably going to feel more secure and therefore less anxious about a chat. But if your boss is a bit of a nightmare, hearing those words can be enough to bring you out in a sweat.

Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, says it could be because we’ve had bad experiences with that specific phrase. “I think many have at least one negative association with that phrase. They may also have positive ones but it's usually the negative ones that we are more inclined to hold on to,” she explains.

This is because of negativity bias, a psychological principle which means we’re more likely to register, remember and dwell on a negative event than we are to recall details of a happy event. It’s a quirk we’ve inherited from our time as cave-dwellers, when our survival depended on our ability to focus on inherent dangers.

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“Several of my clients have had experience of being summoned into a meeting with their boss with the 'quick word' context, have feared the worst and it's actually transpired that that 'quick words' have been about something very positive,” Burke says. “So it's obviously not alway the case that the person is always in for something negative.”

How we react to phrases can also depend on our tendency to catastrophise, or imagine the worst is going to happen. Upon hearing uncertain news, those prone to catastrophic thinking may immediately jump to conclusions about getting into trouble with a boss, being made redundant or other disastrous scenarios.

Essentially, catastrophising is a form of self-preservation. If we assume the worst possible outcome, we’re prepared for it — and we feel more relieved if it doesn’t happen.

There are many reasons why we catastrophise, including anxiety. And living through a global health pandemic which is wreaking havoc on the economy and jobs market probably isn’t going to help. Without context, it’s easy to jump to conclusions if your boss asks you to spare five minutes.

READ MORE: How to set boundaries with your manager without getting into trouble

With so many workers feeling the strain of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s more important than ever for managers to think more carefully about the language they use and how it impacts people. If you need to speak to someone, give context if possible and consider your tone of voice or the words you choose. And with more of us working from home the moment, it’s also important to rethink how we come across in an email or over Zoom.

“From project timelines, to delegating the right work to the right staff, and all the in-between, there’s much about work that can alter our heart rate,” says Talveer Sandhu, a spokesperson for The Knowledge Academy.

“At a granular level, the study we conducted found even the words or phrases, commonplace in a work environment, can make a big difference to how somebody feels. Going forward, this might encourage us all to reconsider how we speak to staff and colleagues.”