When people say they will do “their best”, it really annoys me. There is a lot packed into that little phrase, none of it is any good, and people who use it know this full well. They use it as a rhetorical tool to both lower expectations and wrest control from assessing outcomes of a task from yourself, the task owner, to themselves.

People will say “Don’t be such a hard-ass, they are simply trying to say the right thing”. My retort is that no, words have meanings and people know full well what this phrase means and they use it purposefully; the intent and use of this word is at best useless and at worst goal-misaligned and counterproductive. By using it, you convey to someone that you can’t really be relied on to accomplish tasks, nor are you even committed fully to that goal. This separates you from more mature professionals who never use this phrase (these are the same people you want to talk “as if” you were one of them, even if you haven’t quite made it yet)

So, simple solution – don’t say it. Also, as a leader, don’t allow your team members to use it.

Unknown

When you say “I’ll do my best” there is one, huge uncertainty there. What is your best? What if your best isn’t good enough? What if your best isn’t good at all? So if you need the report done by the end of the week or your team will all lose their jobs, would you rather have someone commit to getting it done or “do their best”. But by tacitly accepting the benchmark of “their best” you implicitly agree that even if the report doesn’t get produced and everyone loses their job, it is fine because the person “did their best”.

Judging ourselves

Another problem I have is that when people say they will work to their best, they are implicitly empowering themselves to set the benchmark for performance or in other words, internalizing it. We are never the personal arbiters of our own success, no matter how much we may strive to acquire that level of control over our personal brand. In reality, our success, or failure, will always be a grade given to us by others based on our accomplishments. Said in another way, success is externalized. Managers, customers, judges and any other arbiters other than yourself will determine your level of success, whether you like it or not.

In a work type situation, your success will be determined by your results, production, feedback, etc and ultimately aggregated and delivered to you by your superior. Whether you did your best, or worst, or anything in between is entirely immaterial. Trying to implicitly set a different standard, than direct feedback from your superior, is a classic example of goal misalignment. You need to embrace the fact that regardless of your effort, personal standards e.g. your best or any other concepts, that your success will be determined by someone else, as unfair as that seems sometimes.

Lowering expectations

The biggest reason people use this is to lower expectations. So that ultimately, if the task is a failure, they can say “Oh well, I did my best” and by that lowered benchmark claim to salvage some sense of success from the loss. By validating that across the company, everyone could be promoted just because, by their own internal benchmarks, which is that they tried their best. Production could slow, revenue could decline, profit could disappear and share prices can collapse, but as long as everyone is doing their best, collectively we can all rest easy. That isn’t how business works.

Ultimately businesses succeed as a whole, based on the collective micro-successes of all individual stakeholders. Success, not some ethereal concept related to effort, must be expected and achieved. There is no other substitute.

This article is part of the “Loser-words” series