When I Say I and When I Say We

I was talking with someone the other day about my early experience with church planting before anyone was on our team.  As I told my personal story, I kept using words such as “our” and “we”.  Towards the middle of the conversation the person stopped me and asked, “Who’s ‘we’?”  I was talking about me the whole time, (although I usually just answer my wife and I) but I confused him with my verbiage.  I wasn’t trying to be confusing.  It’s just a habit I’ve formed.  I have come to realize over the years that a team vocabulary is a large part of encouraging healthy teams.  I love teams and team-building so much that I’ve disciplined myself to always talk in a collective sense.

I cringe when I hear leaders use the words “I”, “me, and “my” when referring to their team, their church or organization.  To me it always sounds so controlling, prideful, and even arrogant.  As an example, Ben Reed is our small groups pastor at Grace Community Church.  He’s an amazing leader.  I would give anything to have been where he is at his age when I was that same age.  When I refer to him, I don’t say “He’s my small groups guy”.  He’s not!  He’s our small groups guy.  I don’t want to portray to him or others that I control him. I want the perception to be that “we” together are part of a team effort.  I would be limiting his potential if I refer to him in a possessive sense.

I understand it may seem to just be semantics, but to me it’s an important issue for leaders to think through, perhaps bigger than to whom some give credence.  If we truly want to create a team environment, then we must develop team vocabularies.

There are a few times when I use the personal words, such as:

  • When offering a pointed direction… “I am asking you to do this for the team…”
  • When offering an opinion that may not be shared by others…  “I think we should…”
  • When asking a question or stirring discussion… “I wonder if we could…”

When I am speaking on behalf of the team or referring to team members, I try to use a collective term…My advice is to default to words like “we” and “our” whenever possible…even if people have to ask you who the “we” is to whom you are referring. The more we talk like a team the more our environments will feel like a team.

What do you think?  Have you had a leader who abused team vocabulary as described?  Do you need to change the way you say things?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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24 thoughts on “When I Say I and When I Say We

  1. Great point!
    We provides ownership and involvement. We creates longer term commitments
    I creates isolation.
    This wisdom becomes increasingly popular in the social media age! Thanks Ron

  2. Great post. I totally agree. I started using we many years ago when referring to our children. The “we” mentality continued when I became a supervisor at work. Our group created a successful team together. ” We” does change one’s thinking.

  3. I agree and would only add that whether intentional or not, if the leader is perceived as self-centered through their messaging, that narcissism kills morale. At that link, there is an example of an almost unbelievable incident in which an executive screamed narcissism during a huge conference. I also wrote a post on the use of "I vs. We" in which there is a suggestion that self-centered messaging also proliferates a culture that is counter to team-building.

    Great post Ron. As you can tell, this is a point I am very passionate about. Thank you for sharing!
    Twitter: BLichtenwalner

  4. I kind of have to disagree with you on this one. I do think that it's just semantics and most of the time means nothing and no one would take it wrong…and if they do, they are the ones with the problem :)

    For example, I'll say my church or my son or my department even when I actually have no control over any of them, even my son since he really belongs to my wife and I. We have, whether right or wrong created this shortcut in our language. I suppose it would be more proper to say "the church I go to" or the "place where I work". But to do this all of the time in common speech sounds very unwieldy.

    I think it becomes a matter of pride or arrogance when we emphasize the I or my. For example, I can say "That's my car" when it really belongs to my wife and I. Or I can say "That's MY car", emphasizing the word my. I think the only time it's wrong to call something mine or use the word my is when you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I have the same thoughts about using "our" or "we" as in your first paragraph. If it's unclear as to who our or we is then perhaps clarification is due, but if you start talking about what you and your wife did before you had a team, then using the words "our" or "we" should just fit into the conversation.

    I guess the bottom line for me is that, although it's probably grammatically incorrect, I don't think I would read any more into the use of those words, unless an attitude accompanied that use.

    • Thanks Jon. I'm okay if we stay on the opposite on this one, but I would say we probably aren't if we talked it through. I agree totally it's the attitude that comes with this issue that's key. I'm speaking of instances where the person DOES have control. They could say "My small groups pastor" and get away with it. It is an attitude of control. Team members are usually smart enough to know the difference. But, I love you reading and dialoguing. I'm even okay when we disagree.

      • No problem. And I really am a "only say what you really mean" kind of guy. For example, you've had other posts when I commented on the PC language of today that really doesn't mean what it says. Is an African-American really someone from Africa who is now an American or does it really mean someone of African descent that is now an American? No, not really; it means a black person as opposed to a white person. Most black people in this country are NOT from Africa, although they may be able to trace their descendants at some point to Africa. But if my parents were missionaries to Africa and I was born there and I now live in America, does that make me African-American; I was born in and migrated from Africa? Technically, yes. but I bet if I used those words to describe me I'd get looked at funny. Feel the same way about Native American. Yes, Indian is a "wrong" term. But I was born in America so I'm a native American…sigh.

        But in this case, I'm not sold that, in most instances, mixing the words "you" and "I" and "we" and "our" really is an issue. As with you I appreciate the dialogue.

    • Jon, I think it is a matter of sensitivity to this issue. To be sure, there are plenty of people that do not care whether a leader, who has perceived control of a situation, uses the "I, Me, My, Mine" terminology. At the same time, there are plenty of – and I am of the mindset more – people that do care. Therefore, I feel it is important that organizational leaders are sensitive to this matter and reflect as much in their communications. After all, those that do not care if they use the singular possessive terminology, certainly do not care if they share the ownership either.

      Thanks for sharing!
      Twitter: BLichtenwalner

      • I can certainly see your point, but I still think that it may have more to do with context and attitude than whether I care or not if I use the word "I' or "my". Let's say we're in a meeting about you doing business with the company I work for. I don't own the company and I am not the CEO. If I start talking about my company there's really nothing wrong with that. You know that I don't own the company and I'm not in charge of it. And it's not that I don't care, but I would see it as a non-issue. On the other hand if we were members of different teams working for the company and I was not the team leader and I started talking about my team in a manner conveying ownership, I'd see that as an attitude and pride issue that could cause problems.

        • Thank you Jon. I actually think we more-or-less agree. You make a great example of occasions when you clearly do not own the item / team (such as "my church" being used by members – I do that, but I am not the pastor either). I still think when you are the recognized leader, such the manager of a team, and refer to it in a possessive manner – or worse, the results of that team – you can offend the team and impact morale. I mention a couple examples below.Regardless of whether or not we agree on that detail, I thank you for highlighting some examples where it is more-or-less acceptable.
          Twitter: BLichtenwalner

  5. Great point, Ron. I would add that even more important than speaking with a vocabulary that emphasizes team, is having a team-oriented attitude and perspective. If a person finds him or herself using phrases like "my church," "my vision," "my department" etc., chances are that's a reflection of self-centered, possessive attitude. That person really ought to take a deeper look at their own motives. The change in vocabulary could be a part of a bigger shift towards more of a team-oriented worldview.