How often do you think about singular and plural pronouns?
I’d venture to guess not very much – except maybe to engage in the debate between “y’all”, “you guys”, “yins”, and “you two” that has plagued restaurant servers for ages.
But what if I were to tell you the easiest, quickest way to demonstrate your status as a leader is to pay more attention to how often you say “I” and “we”?
That’s a lot to put on such tiny little words – especially in English where we have a relatively straightforward pronoun system. Unlike Spanish or French, we don’t use formal pronouns to show deference. Heck, we don’t even code for audience size, which is why it’s sometimes hard to tell if “they” means one person or a group.
But linguistics research shows that even small and simple pronouns carry a lot of subtle meaning in the workplace.
Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen, professor at the University of Helsinki, Finland, discovered that pronouns are among the many verbal cues we use to signal our intention to work together or take unilateral action. When a coworker says “I’ll need to write an announcement,” it often means I’m going to do this on my own – hope that works for you. When they say “We need to write an announcement,” it shows they’re thinking collaboratively and are willing to share both the costs and benefits together.
Pronouns like “I” and “we” may look small, but they carry a lot of subtle meaning in the workplace.
It turns out pronouns can help us decide who’s a team player, and who’s more of a lone wolf – and good leaders either know this instinctively or have learned and implemented it.
A team of psychologists led by Ewa Kacewicz at the University of Texas conducted five experiments to explore how “me” versus “we” thinking shows up in the way leaders talk. The experiments included face-to-face group tasks, studies of email correspondences between colleagues and even letters between variously ranked individuals in the military.
They found a clear link between pronouns and status. Across all five studies, people of lower status were much more likely to use the pronouns “I” and “you,” whereas leaders were much more likely to use “we.”
What does that mean exactly?
It means that leaders, who are responsible for unifying their teams and inspiring collective action, can demonstrate other-centeredness through their use of pronouns. It may seem like a small thing, but because pronouns account for 14 percent of the words we use, it’s actually an enormous thing! Every “we”, “us” and “our” tells a story: We’re in this together.
So if you want to level up your leadership, using “we” more often than “you” or “I” is a good first step.
Every “we”, “us” and “our” tells a story: We’re in this together.
Here’s the catch: by itself, changing the words you use won’t necessarily change the way you think or act. Some of the same researchers who ran those five studies on leaders also tried forcing people to use more “we” pronouns, and found that it didn’t shift their attitudes.
But being more intentional about your pronoun choices can show your team that you’re already thinking in an other-centered way. And that will help set the tone for better communication and collaboration.
In fact, with all this “we” usage, your next meeting should sound like a Parisian bistro.
Hopefully this has shown you that pronouns can be great food for thought as you look to grow your leadership. Bon appétit!
—Liz Marasco, Avanoo Marketing Manager
Liz Marasco has a Master’s in Linguistics from the University of Colorado Boulder and works in the marketing department at Avanoo. Her work has been featured on the TEDx stage and Mental Floss. When not thinking about words, she can be found ogling birds on the Front Range or hiking up a local trail.
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