©2018 by Jody Holland, Inc.

Proper Use of Leadership Pronouns

Updated: May 6, 2019


A pronoun is a noun phrase that can function by itself and that refers to the participants in the discourse or to someone or something else in the discourse.


That seems like a fairly simple definition, but it still gives people quite a bit of trouble. What I mean by that is... Too often, a leader will say something to the effect of, "We need to take immediate action on this." What they really mean is, "you need to take immediate action on this." At some point, a group of people got together and said, "okay, from now on, let's use the word 'we' as our main pronoun so 'those people' will think 'we' are a team." The use of "WE" doesn't constitute teamwork. It actually creates resentment on a regular basis when it is used improperly.


When an employee is told "we need to..." and then they are the only one doing the work, they begin to think that the leader(s) above them are lazy, inept, bad team players, or just mean. Although most people are thinking the use of that inclusive pronoun is supposed to make things better, it actually makes things worse. When a leader is creating accountability, they use questions like, "what can you do in order to make sure you achieve the outcome" instead of what can "we" do statements. The reason for this is that it is fully honest, establishes ownership in the right manner, and sets an appropriate expectation.


The improper use of pronouns leads employees to believe they are going to be helped. The proper use of pronouns both establishes the real expectation and makes clear in the mind of the top leader, the one making the statement, that they are not really saying they are a part of the action. I think this helps top leaders realize how much they are actually putting on their people. It helps them to realize they are not always a part of the solution, but rather, they are a part of the setting of expectations toward the solution. Ideally, top leaders begin to realize the amount of work that is being delegated and will strive to keep balance for their team members. And ideally, those same top leaders will be clear about what they are delegating and what they are willing to help with.


Back off from using the wrong pronouns. When you mean you, say you, not we or us. When you mean I, say I, not us or all of us. When we are honest and direct and clear, the likelihood of achieving our desired outcomes goes up exponentially. I am asking you to speak for yourself, be clear about what you will be participating in and what you will not be participating in, and use pronouns in such a way that you minimize the resentment created within the minds and hearts of your employees.


You have a successful day and I will keep writing! :-)


Jody Holland