The word “should” at workplace

Blogging in English seems to be closely correlated with using English. Despite living in Ireland, I don’t use as much English as I wish to. Luckily, it is getting better. Every single coffee break with Irish people makes a difference.

There’s one word which has started to annoy me lately: “should”.

“This should go there.”
“One should do this.”
“You should avoid that.”

The word itself seems to be innocent; the annoying thing is the way it’s being used. Especially, when the information that “something should” is the only thing one has been told, without explanation of any reasons behind it or a chance to express one’s views on the matter.

The word “should” used at workplace does not mean task delegation.

Expressions intended to delegate a task are different. Consider the difference:

“Please do that.”
(“Right away!”)

“I would like you to take this and bring it there.”
(“On my way, boss!”)


This should be done.
(“By whom?”)

You should take this and bring it there.
(“Why should I?”)

“Should” a form of criticism

Another example of abuse is when talking about someone’s work.

“This should be there.”

In this case, word “should” is a concealed criticism, it means:

“You placed it wrong and you know that. It’s so obvious, that I won’t even explain that to you. And of course I won’t ask why you placed it there. Just do what I say!”

Otherwise, it wouldn’t sound “this should be there”, but something like:

“I see you placed it there, why not here? Are you sure this is right?”

Which means:

“I disagree with the place you put it, but I might be wrong. I am willing to hear your reasons and discuss them so we can achieve common viewpoint.”


The third observation about “shoulds” is that lots of them are just dead wrong!

Flat statements of this kind don’t leave you a space for discussion. You have a choice: give up and agree or stand up and fight. If someone doesn’t leave any “I might be wrong” open, you have to open it yourself.

“You can be wrong.”

Most likely response?

“No no no!”

If somebody doesn’t see the possibility of being wrong, you have very little chances of convincing them. Even if you’re right.

Not mentioning that the possibility of being wrong is very, very unlikely to be zero. Anyone can be wrong about anything, unless it’s a proven mathematical theorem.

Replace it

Every case of “should” usage mentioned here has a hidden layer. It’s either a criticism, a task non-delegation or a way to eliminate discussion. Why not just say it directly? Every instance of “should” can be replaced by a non-ambiguous expression.


Author: automatthias

You won't believe what a skeptic I am.

2 thoughts on “The word “should” at workplace”

  1. actually, I personally don’t have any problems with ‘should’ in the workplace, though I do think it’s rather ambiguous and can be used negatively (inferring: you didn’t do something right!).

    I also personally think that task delegation has to be a bit more forceful and to the point, and not too over the top friendly, because in my experience, people respond best to clear instructions, rather than polite requests.

    Instead of your example:

    “Please do that.”
    (“Right away!”)

    I would say:

    “Please do that [specified date/time]”

    e.g. “Please do that within the next half hour.”

    Your Example:

    “I would like you to take this and bring it there.”
    (“On my way, boss!”)

    I’d say:

    “Please take this and bring it there. Let me know/confirm once you have done it.”

    The problem as I see it is that not everyone responds to polite requests and, while it would be very nicey nicey and friendly to be polite all the time, in my experience it doesn’t achieve the desired results. You have to make sure that the task is 100% clear, with no room for interpretation.

    The words ‘would’ or ‘could’ are furthermore problematic, seeing they are in fact conditional forms of verbs and therefore may connotate some degree of the hypothetical or unreal.

    The worst wording of an instruction would probably be something like:

    “Would you mind just doing a bit more work by tomorrow?”

    or something like

    “Could you please do some more work by tomorrow?”

    I mean, who IS the BOSS? I’d always say something like (example):

    “Please finish your work (e.g. a report) by tomorrow 12noon.”

  2. Try to translate this post into Polish and you will see that this word also doesn’t mean anything in our language. And it is not only connected with work, but also with any other situation, which could happen.

    (to nie takie proste pisać po angielsku i nie myśleć przy tym po niemiecku!)

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