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"Crack the whip" as an idiom to encourage hard work in supervisees is a problematic phrase with racist and oppressive overtones. As others have noted, its origin is from driving horses, but could certainly be misconstrued quite easily.

Are there alternative phrases with a similar meaning? "Buckle down" comes to mind, but I am curious what other sayings might be out there that could be used instead. Specifically, I am hoping to find a way to ask that a subordinate work harder on a specific task, in part by invoking my status as their supervisor / advisor.

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  • Can you explain how you want to use the phrase? Maybe give a sentence or a precise context? I'd consider any use of "crack the whip" either to be describing a bad situation where management is behaving cruelly, or else as a joke, but I wouldn't use it seriously to encourage hard work - would you end your emails whipcrack as a serious instruction?
    – Stuart F
    Jun 6 at 14:21
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    @StuartF Maybe a better idiom to compare with in the question is let's get cracking, which may not have the same origin as cracking a whip (StackExchange) but would easily be associated with crack the whip by a modern listener. Jun 6 at 14:40
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    As far as I have ever been aware, 'cracking the whip', is associated with coach drivers and ring masters controlling horses. In the case of coach drivers it is associated with having the horses run faster. that is not to say that whips were never used in the abuse of slaves in America and the West Indies. But the metaphor, as it stands, is essentially equine.
    – Tuffy
    Jun 6 at 20:59
  • According to Dilbert, "motivate the headcount(s)" Jun 6 at 21:14
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    You would not tell a subordinate to 'crack the whip' unless the subordinate had subordinates. If you are motivating a subordinate by aggressive or threatening words or behaviour you are metaphorically 'cracking the whip'. If the subordinate is a team leader vou could be telling them to motivate their team by 'cracking the whip' but 'crack the whip' does not mean 'work hard yourself'.
    – BoldBen
    Jun 7 at 23:54

6 Answers 6

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There are significant differences between the phrases.

To "crack the whip" is to encourage (or force) others to do hard work.

Possible alternatives include:

  • Ride herd
  • Lay down the law
  • Be in the drivers seat
  • Be in the saddle

To "buckle down" is to get ready to do hard work yourself.

Possible alternatives include:

  • roll up your sleeves
  • get your head down
  • get your act together
  • pull up your socks
  • get your finger out (less polite)
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  • I think this comment helped me realize that the question is more ambiguous than I first thought. However, it reads as a comment and not as an answer to the phrase request. Adding an answer to the phrase request would help it. Apologies for not getting the comment out sooner - I was interrupted. Jun 6 at 15:12
  • Changed to make sure I give alternatives for both and thus answer the question. Jun 6 at 15:26
  • "Get your act together" seems to imply that mistakes were made, and must be corrected. I'd be careful when using that one.
    – Brandin
    Jun 9 at 9:49
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To light a fire under someone means to encourage faster or more enthusiastic work and could be a reasonable replacement for "crack the whip" in some contexts. The proverbial "fire" could be encouragement through positive or negative means - rumors of upcoming layoffs might light a fire under your workers, or an impassioned speech about the positive societal impacts of a particular project might as well. The "fire" could be any sort of motivation to work faster/more effectively. In the right context, it's a near-perfect replacement:

"I still don't have the report Steve promised me, I may need to crack the whip."

"I still don't have the report Steve promised me, I may need to light a fire under him."

The phrase could replace most uses of "crack the whip", but may also be suited to more passive instances where no one in particular is doing the motivation, as in:

"The team's defensive rally lit a fire under the players, leading them to win in the final minutes."

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In a work context, roll up one's sleeves (often roll up your sleeves or roll up our sleeves) strikes a less problematic tone for putting forth hard work. Cambridge Dictionary:

to prepare for hard work:

There's a lot of work to do, so roll up your sleeves and get busy.

The idiom relates to the literal act of rolling up sleeves before doing some physical task in order to keep them from getting wet (e.g., in a sink) or dirty (e.g., under the hood of a car). However, the idiom is frequently used for starting any kind of effort, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional:

And, of course, be ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work! (A Spiral Approach to Financial Mathematics by Nathan Tintle, Nathan Schelhaas, and Todd Swanson, 2018)

You were made for this time. You were made for this task. So, let's roll up our sleeves and get to work! (Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry by Nicole Massie Martin, 2016)

I'm looking for a few good men... and women. Who aren't afraid of hard work. Aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves. I'm looking for scrappers, hustlers, guys that are willing to roll up their sleeves. (The Founder, 2016)

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    It doesn't mean to "encourage hard work in supervisees", which is what the question asked.
    – Laurel
    Jun 6 at 14:43
  • Actually, I see ambiguity in the question. Is it asking for how an idiom is used? (The phrase is definitely used to encourage hard work in employees?) Or is it asking for an idiom to refer to the phenomenon of encouraging hard work in employees? The trickiness is that their other example (buckle down) is exhortative and "to encourage work" suggests OP is searching for a statement suited to that purpose, but then they call "to encourage work" the meaning of the idiom, which may be how you took it. So maybe this is a flaw in the question; I'll happily adjust if OP clarifies. Jun 6 at 15:09
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Read [someone] the riot act

Merriam-Webster:

riot act

a vigorous reprimand or warning —used in the phrase read the riot act

Example: We're really behind on this project. I'm going to have to read the team the riot act.

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You can talk to your team member and clarify your/my/our expectations.

This offers the face-saving “out” that your original instructions were unclear or misunderstood in some way, but it also offers no wiggle room, especially if you follow it with let’s get this down in black and white, along with specific deliverables and due dates.

This shouldn’t be done in a hostile way. Start with the assumption that there’s something blocking the team member from doing their job, and work together to find a solution. The problem may be quite different from what you first assume. You or other managers may be partly at fault. There may be other issues in the company or in a person’s private life. It can often be hard to tell.

If you ultimately end up having to remove the team member from the team, a written record from the discussion will be very useful.

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Your imagined context is not clear but I consider two circumstances where you might use the phrases.

First: when describing what you do, you might put a bomb under them instead of "crack the whip" at them.

Free Dictionary
put a bomb under (someone or something)
To motivate or give someone an incentive to do something faster, better, or with greater energy or enthusiasm.
Primarily heard in UK.

It's been over a week now and we still haven't gotten our delivery! I think it's time you called customer support and put a bomb under them.

Here's hoping the new manager will put a bomb under his squad, because they've been looking like amateurs the past few games.

Second: in addressing your staff you might say "I am going to crack the whip" or you could also say "I am going to put a bomb under you". Neither shows a sympathetic, motivating and easy approach to management.

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  • A downvoter offers no explanation for their disagreement with the Free Dictionary. How does this mute negativity help the questioner?
    – Anton
    Jun 7 at 6:52
  • I wasn't the first down voter but I did just downvote, because this phrase seems over the top to me. Jun 8 at 5:09
  • @aparente001 thanks for that. It may help the questioner to know some folk such as yourself find it too strong.
    – Anton
    Jun 8 at 6:30
  • If you're directly pressuring someone with this, I don't think it's really going to work in the same way as you cited from the Free Dictionary. For example, imagine telling your subordinate, "It's been two weeks and your task is still not done. I'm going to put a bomb under you." I don't think it's going to sound motivating at all. The examples from the Free Dictionary are situations where you're telling someone to put pressure on someone else.
    – Brandin
    Jun 9 at 9:56
  • @brandin agreed: that is why I made my terminal comment in the answer.
    – Anton
    Jun 9 at 13:18

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