A couple of weeks ago a had a discussion with some students about how to communicate respectfully with customers and how to address oneself in certain situations: One or I or we? Language can be a means to construct relationships and culture – with customers and within a team.
I was training some students in comprehensible communication in the context of public authorities. In German there is a long tradition of the language of bureaucracy, a style of distance through nominalizations and passive voice. This may give people a Kafkaesque feeling that nobody cares or is actually in charge or is taking responsibility. So I suggested to my students to form sentences like „I will do something.“ (e.g. „I will sort this out for you.“). This is more on eye level: It sounds more empathic and respectful and it makes clear the commitment of the person talking.
One Student said that at their workplace they communicated rather with „we“ instead: „We will sort this out for you.“ This is ok, too, although it is more distant because you can hide behind this „we“ and it isn’t apparent who that might be exactly. Others agreed with me and we discussed several different contexts where „I“ or „we“ might be more suitable. Rule of thumb: Whenever you really mean „we“ as in „the whole team collaborates on this“ it is ok and probably even better to say „we“.
We the team
Then I got a question of another student: Is it ok to say „we“ if you are a team leader? From the situation ahead my guess was that this student actually wanted to know from me whether it was ok to identify with the team if you are leading it. It seemed to me that although he was comfortable with being a team leader he also felt a bit robbed of his own identity by leading the team and therefore not being a part of it.
So I asked him whether he felt like being in the team, like collaborating with the team. And actually this question made him very happy. Because he then saw that leading a team doesn’t have to exclude him from the team.
As a project leader I sometimes wonder when to say we, I or they. I am not the boss of the people in my projects. Still, sometimes I do lead them, too, while leading the project. And usually I do collaborate with them. So I say things like „We found out…“ or „We worked on that…“. Still, if there are complicated questions of responsibility on delicate issues I sometimes try to protect my project team. Probably because I want them to focus on content rather than on administrative problems.
Recognition of the individual
Sometimes I even say things like „X and Y worked on that issue and found…“ I do it to appreciate their work and let others see their performance. But I am aware that this can become difficult if some people are not working as hard or are working on tasks that are rather in the background. And of corse it never should be about pointing at someone who „made a mistake“.
I do think that we do our best work by collaborating as a team. I also do think that the collaboration of a team is shaped by the commitment of individuals and I do think that sometimes personal appreciation is needed. Not in distinction to the rest of the team but in recognition of the individual. It’s not about being better, it’s about being good.