Small Words // Big Impact in Leadership Language

April 12, 2022
7 Minutes
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Pronouns have been a hot topic for some time (as evident hereherehere, and here). The use of pronouns is an important issue with serious social implications. However, those are not the focus of this post. Rather, this piece more narrowly tackles pronouns in connection to a separate but related topic: the language of leadership. It may seem like a leap, but please bear with me here:

In his amazing work, Language and the Pursuit of Leadership ExcellenceChalmers Brothers makes the case that leaders get paid to have effective conversations. In this TedTalk, he goes on to explain: “Leaders create and continually sustain and cultivate this non-physical, but very real and very powerful thing called corporate culture. Not with tools and fertilizer, of course, but with the conversations they have, the conversations they require, and the conversations they prohibit.” Totally agree…as touched on here in a prior post on this blog. An important part of such conversations revolves around how leaders address or reference themselves and others; and a critical linguistic device for doing so is this thing called a pronoun. Although pronouns tend to be short / small words, they can have an outsized impact on relationships; and this post offers some observations around how pronouns can either support or undermine leaders’ efforts to build culture and deliver results.

Let’s first cover third-person pronouns (he / she / it / they, and related derivatives), since these are the ones that have received by far the most popular attention in recent years. That notwithstanding, third person pronouns are actually NOT the main focus of this post, save for one very important point: effective leaders will take pains to refer to people how they want to be referred. Period. Although this seems like a basic gesture of human respect, it gets botched and not just via presumptive use of traditional pronouns. When multiple teammates share a common name, leaders sometimes innocently call one or many of them by different versions of that name. For this very reason, my father “Rob” was known (annoyingly for him) throughout his entire career as “Bob.” As is the case with an unwelcome pronoun, being called by a name that you don’t like inevitably leads to at least some loss of identity — and lower performance. For this same reason, nicknames in the workplace can be problematic. At one firm early in my career, the name Todd somehow evolved into the nickname “Toddler,” which is how virtually everyone referred to me. I hated it; and it was a contributing factor to my feeling disconnected and disenfranchised at that business. Countless examples abound, and thoughtful leaders work hard to conscientiously refer to people either directly or via third-person pronouns based entirely on their stated preference.

Less obvious to the language of leaders, but arguably even more important, are first-person pronouns (I / we, and derivatives of those). The old saying goes: “There is no ‘I’ in team.” I suppose that is partly true, but with some nuances. Certainly, leaders should avoid taking personal credit for the accomplishments of their organizations. Founders / leaders can create “nails on a chalk-board” moments when they assert things like: “I did $4M in ARR last year,” or “I’m going to deliver ground-breaking new product capabilities in this next sprint.” There is no surer way than appropriating a group’s collective efforts for ego-centric leaders to turn-off their hard-working, under-acknowledged colleagues. Actually, very few stakeholders react well to this habit; we all seem to innately understand the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

Conversely, the use of the first-person plural pronoun “we” is almost universally appropriate in leadership moments and settings. The term “we” inclusively shares credit and collectively establishes accountability. When in doubt, leaders should consistently default to the term “we” for virtually all stakeholders. This extends beyond a leader’s core team to include customers, prospects, investors, and even competitors. “We” opens a ton of doors, possibilities, and goodwill.

Now…having said all that, strong leaders understand that there actually should be at least one “I” in team — when things go wrong for the organization. When this happens, leaders use the first person singular, as follows:

  • “I will do X and Y differently next time, based on what we’ve learned this quarter.”
  • “I take responsibility for managing this challenge that we are facing.”
  • “I plan to focus my energy on improving my skills / performance in the following three areas this year.”

For effective leaders, there really is an “I” in team…it gets spotlighted when modeling good behavior around embracing vulnerability, adopting a growth mindset, and establishing an environment of accountability…and in encouraging others to do the same.

Finally, the trickiest pronoun of all — second-person (you / you guys / y’all / yinz (when in Pittsburgh), and similar derivatives). When addressing a group, leaders should generally avoid using the word “you,” pretty much…ever. It creates separation from the speaker in a way that is rarely helpful. This is particularly true in a leader’s first 90 days, where using the collective “you” can quickly alienate one’s new team. This may seem innocent enough (“You did this differently in the past than how we’ll approach it going forward.”). But what audiences tend to hear is their leader creating factions within the organization, judging the old-guard, and not yet taking full ownership for the organization as it exists today. This simple slip can sink a new leader before they even get under sail. Even for longer-tenured leaders, I’d contest that the potential costs of using “you” almost always outweigh the benefits. For example:

  • “You didn’t do what I asked.”
  • “The organization needs more out of you.”
  • “You guys really have to step-up.”

None of these statements fosters a shared sense of purpose, instead creating an adversarial dynamic. Admittedly, all of the above examples have negative context. Surely “you” can be used in a positive context, such as when praising someone for achieving great results. Right?! I mean…sure, but I’d actually advise against it. Telling someone, “You did a great job,” may sound good on the surface, but it often can be somewhat exclusionary. Specifically, singling out a person (or group of people) runs the risk of undervaluing the countless interdependencies and unseen contributors that are required to achieve any shared goal. This occurred just this week at one of our portfolio companies, in the wake of a successful bookings quarter. One well-meaning exec said to the head of Sales, “Thank you to your team for hitting our bookings number!” Understandably, the head of Marketing, feeling slighted, fumed on the other side of the room. Thankfully, the Sales exec had the good instincts to gracefully point out that it was a team effort across all functions. To emphasize this point, he offered: “Really it’s thanks to all of us; yay for us as a whole…we were only able to beat plan by working together.” Boom! That was an elegant and effective substitution of “we” for “you.”

In closing, like most things, guidelines for the use of pronouns should be followed with a balance of discipline and pragmatism. A bit of attentiveness can go a long way toward avoiding the most egregious or recurring infractions. On the other hand, maniacal adherence to these points can tie leaders in verbal knots, ironically reducing the authenticity and effectiveness of their communications. Leaders should be themselves…and maintain big ambitions for their conversations…but also keep a close eye on those little words, because they / we / you really matter.


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