Leaders sometimes say things they shouldn’t, parroting pithy memes that they think sound clever and inspirational but all too often come across as condescending and out of touch.

Exhibit A is “work smarter, not harder,” which some president, VP, or department head is bound to trot out anytime a loss of resources (like budget cuts or a reduction in staff hours) appears to threaten productivity. Of course, everyone involved understands what that really means: They’re going to have to do more with less.

Well, duh. They probably knew that the moment they heard there were going to be more budget cuts. For many of them, particularly those who work in perennially cash-strapped fields like education and health care, that isn’t exactly something new. They’re perfectly used to doing more with less, and they’re actually pretty good at it.

The work-smarter-not-harder mantra, however, is insulting on a number of levels. First of all, it assumes people haven’t really been working smart up to that point—or at least they haven’t been as smart as they could be. It’s essentially a nice(ish) way of saying, “Hey, the fact that we’re losing three full-time positions wouldn’t be such a big deal if you guys weren’t so dumb.”

Second, it assumes that people haven’t been working as hard as they could, either. How could they, if it’s still possible for them to work harder? In fact, it kind of implies that they’re lazy, because the message is, “Hey, folks, don’t panic. We’re not asking you to work harder. Just smarter.”

And finally, the WSNH mantra is insulting—not to mention patronizing—because it ignores the real problem. The problem is NOT that people haven’t been working hard enough. It’s NOT that they aren’t smart enough. The problem is that they’re going to have to continue doing the same job—and perhaps more besides—and they’re expected to get the same results if not even better—despite having less money and less staff to work with.

If that’s the case, so be it. The people in your organization are all big boys and girls. Be straight with them. Tell them up front that they’re going to have to do more with less, and why. You’ll generally find that, once they know the situation, they tend to rise to the occasion.

Just don’t try to sugar-coat it with slick one-liners. And whatever you do, don’t slap your people in the face by suggesting that they’re not already working as hard and as smart as they can.

By Rob Jenkins

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