When “We” Are “They”

I’m always surprised and a bit taken aback when I hear an employee of any company use the term "they" instead of "we" when referring to the company they work for.  It makes me wonder exactly what it is about the relationship between the company and the employee that prevents that employee from feeling part of the whole – a spoke in the wheel, an integral cog in the machine.  Of course, it’s not only a company-wide phenomenon.  The same thing can happen in smaller groups within the company or, in fact, within any size organization.  Certainly, there are some people who have an aversion to belonging to a group, but I have to believe that, most often, this happens because the leadership and management of the company has failed to create the type of bond that leads to "we."

Does it even matter?  I think so.  If employees feel that they are outsiders, they’re less likely to feel ownership for the success or failure of the organization.  They, most likely, will do their job and go home at the end of the day satisfied that they did what they were assigned.  A person who feels bound to the organization and a critical component of it will likely, however, be focused not only on their own success, but the success of the organization as a whole.  When everyone in a group feels this way, the entire group is more productive, is easier to manage and is more innovative.

It’s easy to blame the employee for not feeling like they are part of the team, but as I said before, the employee’s feeling like an outsider is almost always the fault of his/her management.  And, the onus is on management to fix the problem in order to optimize the performance of the group.  This, obviously, starts with the manager making sure the employee feels like an integral part of a team using simple management techniques involving buy in, delegation, responsibility and trust.

The manager shouldn’t simply dole out tasks to be completed but, instead, he/she should get the members of the team involved in the planning of the tasks required and then hold them responsible and accountable for their deliverables.  Let them come up with the plan, specifications and dates, question them to test that the details meet all constraints and are aligned with the abilities of the group, then let the members of the group execute according to their plan (always remembering that management style needs to change for each person being managed – see It’s OK to Micromanage . . . Sometimes).  That way, success or failure is theirs, not management’s.  This creates buy-in and ownership and, ultimately, a team environment in which each person feels like an important part.

That should cover the “we” related to project ownership.  Here are some other tools to help the employee feel part of the bigger picture:

  • Recognize people for their individual contributions privately and for their group contributions publicly.  That way, others see the implicit reward in working together.
  • Ask for input from people on projects that they aren’t even working on.  Get them thinking about the bigger picture and expand their scope outside their day-to-day focus.
  • Have people teach others – there’s no responsibility or ownership of the outcome quite like that of a teacher’s.
  • Give those with less of a team-focus the responsibility of representing the team to outside groups (OK, maybe not customers at first).  Most people will step up when they are responsible for representing others.

When an employee refers to their group or company as “they,” it’s a sure signal that they don’t have any ownership of the success or failure of the organization.  Nothing good can come of this.  It’s the manager’s responsibility to fix the situation by getting the employee more involved and to feel that the progress of the group/team/company is directly tied to them and that their efforts are valuable because they are a piece of a bigger picture – they are less valuable and less significant if they stand alone.


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