I Before Me, Except After We – How You Lead with Your Words

The intentions of your words of leadership may be hijacked by their impact. Words like I, Me, We and their synonyms can bring people together, drive people and inspire with purpose and passion; or they can divide people and demotivate.  Knowing the context of these words and how they impact, can define how you lead your team.

I am not pioneering this topic nor am I the exemplar of these words or the embodiment of best practice.  Social philosophy has studied the terms I and Me for ages.  Contemporaries have studied the vocabulary of business and world leaders’ influence of pronouns on election outcomes as documented by Niklas K. Steffens  and S. Alexander Haslam in their paper “Power through ‘Us’: Leaders – Use of ‘We’ Referencing Language Predicts Election Victory”.  There are countless books and articles written on Social Identity, including “The Secret Life of Pronouns” by James W. Pennebaker.  I have read many as a leader wanting to develop effective communication and leadership skills and can claim that wise words are hardest learned.

In a few paragraphs, I will offer to you the learnings given to me from my leadership experiences and those embodied by the scientists and philosophers that have gone before me.

Use of I. The strongest word in the bunch and exudes the most ego. When you say I, you mean only you and your actions. When using I in discussion with others, it implies that you have acted primarily on your merits and without input from others. To the listener, it says you are not needed, your thoughts are not as valuable as mine or you will follow. You may dispute this by saying, “what if someone asks my opinion on something, how else should I answer?” First consider, is your thought yours and original, only discovered by you? Or have you learnt it from others, from readings, from experiences? If it’s original works, by all means, use I to your heart’s content. If your ideas are collaborative, derivative or speculative, you may consider We, Us or Our.

Use of Me. This is a lesser form of I and can imply lower ego. Me, is usually the result of an external influence, such as you have learned from others and will or could act upon this learning. Me, invites others into a conversation and will illicit responses about the emotional or physical state resulting from the learning. Me, comes with some form of wisdom that may attract others to you or your ideas but may not invite participation.

Use of We. Social language that offers potentially low ego and is inclusive. A listener would feel part of the conversation and wanting to be part of the next learnings. It is researched, concluded and proved that political candidates running for executive office, win more often using We than I, Me or My. People are social animals and naturally wish to gravitate to groups, collectives and communities. Words like We, Our, Us bring people into these groups.

Let’s consider the following statements:

“The choice was begging to be made and I made it”.

“You taught me something about this situation”.

“We worked hard and delivered a great outcome”.

Which sentence attracts you more? My bet is the last has more pulling power as it implies many people worked to deliver success, shared by all.  It should give you feeling that they were able to do it because of team work and could do it again. We love to be associated with winners and We love to feel empowered and challenged.  With the right conditions, We will win every time.

Leaders wanting sustained results and successful outcomes should practice We before I. They should learn that giving the power and the ego away to others is a sign of strength and trust. Trust is built on a subliminal level and is created by the release of Oxytocin from the Pituitary and creates feelings of pleasure, social bonding and even reproduction. You may agree that these are some of the most powerful emotions that we possess. Triggering these emotions with use of words like We, Us, Our can have sustained, positive results for leaders.

I and Me are not to be banished from the leadership vocabulary and are useful when owning an authority or responsibility of business, when creating a safe working environment or when being human and admitting fault.

Consider “I will manage that risk for you” may seem like an ego-driven sentence where it appears the listener has had no role in the decision being made. Yet this may also be interpreted as the outcome of a discussion whereby the leader has decided to reduce the risk for the team.

Finally consider, “Come see me if you are having problems” sounds harmless enough yet to the listener it may say, “When you have discovered you are inadequate, come tell me and I will remind you of it”.  Your best intentions of wanting to assist have been completely derailed by the impact of the words.  A more effective sentence could be, ”We like to work in teams to solve problems and you are encouraged to seek the team’s or my help”.

So, let me practice a closing remark with you. “From the team at HPS, we would love to hear your stories or thoughts around this article. Your stories will also help me become a better leader at HPS”.

About the author

Peter is the founder and Director of Holtmann Professional Services, a global provider of executive coaching, business excellence consulting and career path development. Peter has 20 years of experience in executive roles and has been the President and CEO of a global Non-profit. Peter has written for many journals and blogs, is a keynote speaker and is a champion of prosperity through excellence of leadership.

If you are interested in working with Peter, please reach out to enquiries@holtmann.com.au.