Why “We” Doesn’t Work Here Anymore
See what happens when a manager stops using the word “we” when communicating with his team for 3 months & find out it’s effect on performance, collaboration, and planning.
About 3 months ago, I was in a Skype meeting with my team at Mailbird going over the usual —Planning upcoming releases, promotions, and ensuring each team member had what they needed to move forward:
Alright guys, we need to get this press release ready for next week. Christin, have we finished drafting it up? Daniel, do we have any assets prepared? Where are we with the newsletter? Guys, we need to begin looking at promoting the new feature releasing on Thursday…
After about the umpteenth time, it randomly struck me that I was using the term “we” a lot — at least every other sentence. “We need to do this”, “will we be ready in time?”, and so on. I found it interesting that I was using it even when referring directly to someone else: “Andrea, do we have the signed contracts ready?”.
To be clear, it’s not that it felt weird to use “we” so often. It’s just not something I ever noticed about myself. And, after noticing it, I couldn’t help but pick up on how much everyone else used it in conversation, too.
So, I began to think about what I mean by “we”
After the meeting, I took a little time to reflect on how and why I seem to use the phrase “we” so often in conversation. I realized that it wasn’t just with my team at Mailbird — I was using it constantly with everyone from business partners, to family members, friends. Even my writing style included the term a lot.
That got me thinking — who exactly do I mean when I say “we”, and why do I use it instead of being more specific?
I noticed there were several different categories in how I used the term “we”:
Direct to an individual — “Abe, do we have the new banner ready to go?”
Directly to a group — “Alright guys, we need to promote this new feature.”
As a part of a group — “Sure Tom, we would be happy to explore the opportunity.”
I’m sure there are more examples of different ways I have used it, but these were the main ways I felt I used “we” in daily conversation.
What “we” really means
After some more thought on these cases, I realized something obvious that just had not occurred to me before: “we” is term I was frequently using to assign responsibility or ownership.
I discovered there were many cases where using “we” wasn’t doing this— “We are happy to announce a new feature.”
But, there were many other times I found I was using the term to assign responsibility when not everyone it encompassed actually needed to be (or were otherwise already) involved.
Why I discovered I use “we” so much
That’s when it hit me — In many instances, I was using “we” because it broadly distributes responsibility instead of holding people, groups, or even myself directly accountable.
Looking at my example of the “Directly to an individual” category above, I was using the term “we”. But why?
If it was something Abe was responsible for, why not “you”? If it was a group of people, with Abe as a lead in the project, why not “your team”?
If it’s something I actually have a portion of responsibility in completing, why am I asking about the project as a whole when I know the status of my responsibilities in completing it?
In a word, it’s friendlier. By using “we” in all cases, it creates the impression that “we” are all in this — That “we” all share the load.
Well, you are a team, right? Isn’t that a good thing? We should support each other, shouldn’t “we”?
First, let me be clear. I am very thankful that every day I get to work with such a wonderful and supportive team here at Mailbird. Every person on the team is only too happy to offer help whenever it’s needed, often before even being asked for it.
I think it’s precisely because I want to foster this idea of cooperation within my team that I always find myself wanting to remind everyone that I, “we”, are here to help. Even if it’s something you, yourself, are working on — I need you to know there is always someone ready to jump in.
That being the case, does it always have to be said? More specifically, does using “we” to illustrate that the person/s responsible are not alone always a good idea?
What I wanted to know was this: By trying to remain supportive, and helping to distribute responsibility, was my use of “we” in these cases costing us something?
So, I fired “we”
For the last 3 months, I have refrained from using “we” wherever possible. Writing, conversation, meetings, you name it. As you might expect, this was tough. I discovered I was so used to saying “we” that I had to post a sign over my monitor just to remind myself to stay conscious of it.
Now, I don’t mean that in the 3 months since I began this experiment that I tried to completely avoid saying or writing “we”. Often, it was simply the most appropriate term — when referring to our team in press releases, for example.
My main focus was in discussions within our team at Mailbird, or when I felt that “we” did not directly involve the responsibilities of everyone in the discussion/audience. Even in the cases where it did actually involve everyone, I found myself digging deeper into tasks, projects, and so on in order to address people directly just to avoid being too general.
Old habits die hard
This was tough at first — especially when dealing with people directly. Although nothing else had changed, using terms like “you” more definitely made me uncomfortable at first. The best way to counteract this, I found, was to follow up with an offer to help out. Or, to ask others if they could offer their support if it was needed.
I also tried to remind myself that nothing had actually changed. Although I may have felt like I was being more stern or exacting than I had been before the test, I only felt that way because I was directly addressing the person responsible. I wasn’t giving them any more responsibility than they already had.
The results so far
It was a rocky start, no doubt. But once I became comfortable with tossing out “we”, I noticed a few amazing things begin to happen.
I never would have guessed how much the simple act of removing “we” from my vocabulary would improve planning projects and tasks. From the very beginning, it forced me to avoid looking at projects and tasks in too broad a scope. In order to get down to addressing tasks to only those responsible, I found myself focusing on much smaller, individual tasks and goals.
This new way of doing things made for much more complete, and thought out projects over the last 3 months.
I had a feeling this is where “we” was really hurting my discussions and work within the team. Turns out, it was quite a lot. Before, I would say something like:
“Alright, SXSW is coming up in 3 months. We need to come up with a promotion idea to capitalize on it. Christin, what are we going to do on social. Alexis, is there anything we can learn from our visitors that can help us? Abe, we need 3 mock-ups of ….”
Whereas, now I was forcing myself to be more direct:
“Alright, SXSW is coming up in 3 months. Christin, I would like you to look at social campaigns run by other brands. Also, I need you to work out an angle idea for working our new feature into the discussion on social. Let me know if you need help, and I’d be happy to help come up with a few. Alexis, please look at our demographics and see if you can identify any demographics that match up with the attendees of the event that Christin can use. Andrea attended the event last year, so ask her if she has any ideas about it. Let me know if you need any help and Christin and I can work with you. Abe, I need you to make 3 mock-ups of …..”
Of course, I was the only member of my team doing this experiment, so their responses and ideas often included “we”. But, it was amazing how much impact just one person not using it can have in focusing the discussion back on the individuals and their responsibility.
Well, since nobody on my team has tried to kill me…
Hah, not so much. But, in all honesty, it was a little rocky at the start. Or, it may have just been my own perception. It’s hard not to think you are being more stern or exacting with your team-mates when you start being more direct with them in this way.
However, it didn’t take long to realize that this test hadn’t changed anything, really. All it was doing was tossing out the cozy blanket statement of “we” and cutting to the actual work that needed to be done, and addressing or assigning those responsible for their part in getting things done.