Communication – the word and concept – can mean many things. The chosen outcome of our messages can vary as well. On any given day in your working life, your reason for communicating varies. Perhaps your goal is to compel action. Or, maybe, to correct performance. In other cases, there may be a need to inspire and energize. From the mundanities of daily operations to the vastness of our vision for a ten-year plan, the methodologies used to transmit our message have everything to do with how impactful that message is. Mix clear intent with aspirational energy, sprinkle a little incentivized motivation and, poof… this year’s goal discussion or next year’s growth plan meeting.

But, it can all go wrong if two little letters are ignored.

Why Should ‘We’ Matter?

We learn about tense in speech starting at around age 6 and, from there, every budding Stephen King or Doris Lessing leaps into leveraging past and present perfect tense as they write school essays, short stories and Hollywood screenplays. The way in which we speak and write comes from how we experience our world. It’s easy, when most of what we process comes through our senses to our brain, to see the world from our unique perspective. Life, from this aspect, is subjective, and if we agree with Nietzsche, true objectivity may not exist.

Since we are predisposed to thinking and communicating as an ‘I’, our perspective is via the all-powerful first person in all of its potentially narcissistic fallibility. With everything that comes at us on a daily basis, it can be difficult to get out of the ‘I’. I suffer, succeed, achieve, fail, rejoice, lament and so much more from the only viewpoint I have – mine. But once I employ empathy, perspective, connectedness, nurturing, collaboration and so many other traits that bring those around me into my ‘me’ space… powerful things can happen. In our working world, all of us is smarter and more capable than one of us.

The Concept of the Lone ‘I’ Has Always Been Flawed

Okay… so it’s that simple, huh? Just collaborate and everything will be better. Not quite. The problem with oversimplifying the journey to building ‘we’ based cultures is we are pre-programmed not to do so.

Think about the stories that swirl around us every day from our world. We tend to think the founding of that company, the debut of that new automobile or the premiere of the latest film couldn’t have happened without that one person – the ‘I’ who is fictionally embodied by characters like Tony Stark and, in our real world, play out before us in the form of Zuckerberg, Musk and Bezos. Even when a founder is aware he or she didn’t do it alone, in our soundbite driven world, we shorten rags to riches or company founding stories and often fail to acknowledge that a ‘we’ accomplished what an ‘I’ never could.

In Hollywood, the auteur theory – the idea that one man or woman can make a film all by themselves has long ago been debunked. Spielberg, Scott, Wells and Kubrick may have had vision but none of them made a great film by themselves. The truth is almost everything is a collaboration. Cliché aside, anything we accomplish really does take a village.

By the way – notice anything about the archetypal examples above? The group of supposedly lone-wolves is most often made up of men. Men tend to struggle with creating ‘we’ environments more than their female counterparts. Something to think about, gentlemen….

Now, as an individual you may want to build your ‘we’ muscles and magnify your own impact by manifesting the power of the team around you. Or, perhaps, you need to understand how to recognize cultures that are or aren’t ‘we’ based. Let’s put this awareness into action.

How Do You Embrace Your Inner ‘We’?

  • Recognize a ‘we’ mindset requires the courage to share and to invite contradiction. ‘We’ means we collaborate versus dictate. There is a reason why horrible leaders, often criminally so, choose dictatorship as their style of choice when it comes to marshalling their forces. It’s the easiest style of leadership to employ and therefore requires the least skill. Show me a manager with an autocratic style and I’ll show you someone with inferiority issues, fear of making mistakes, need for adulation and an inability to allow criticism or examination of their own ideas. If you are a leader who wants to succeed by inviting others to join you and make your ‘I’ based work even better, be prepared to be challenged.
  • Accept that working as a ‘we’ doesn’t absolve the ‘I’ from their own responsibility. The power of ‘we’ doesn’t provide license to diffuse responsibility or lay off blame when things don’t go well. Leaders are responsible and accountable and don’t abdicate decision making or burden when the more appropriate action is to stand up and take a hit. Just as damaging as being a Napoleonic blow hard who believes he alone can conquer the world is the leader who misuses the concept of ‘we’ and spreads blame to their team when the right thing is to accept responsibility. Leaders are paid to make decisions and get results. Sometimes mistakes happen, and when they do, the best leaders accept, adapt and improve. Let’s not be afraid of the vision, ability and charisma of the ‘I’. But, let’s ensure it isn’t overused and tainted by arrogance or tone deaf and heavy-handed management styles.

How Do You Recognize Work Cultures That Are (Or Aren’t) We Based?

  • Look at their feet. It’s one thing to use words like ‘we’ in company memorandum or video meetings. Plenty of leaders play the part and are quite successful in stimulating movement by feigning an inclusive culture. On the reverse end of the spectrum, plenty of organizational cultures rely on, and even thrive, on top-down dynamics which utilize a tell versus ask command structure. But some of us want our voices heard and want an opportunity to ‘put spin on the ball’. We know while leadership can be uni-directional, and collaboration is bi-directional, ownership is omni-directional. In ‘we’ based cultures, anyone can lead. Great ideas, new approaches and breakthrough solutions come from everywhere in a we based culture. Leaders who act in a we based way versus just giving it lip service will be easy to spot based on their actions, not their rhetoric.
  • Know when to expect clarity of direction. As important as ‘we’ is, leadership by committee can be painful. Bringing bright minds into a room and solving big problems should be every organization’s goal, but ultimately, direction must be provided. Decisions must be made. Hierarchy is necessary to the smooth flow of an organization. The balance to this are ‘we’ based cultures which create a ‘pull’ for information and input from our teams versus a ‘push’ of directives and commands down to them. Working within such an organization is quite different than one where everywhere marches when they’re told. Coaches, mentors, leaders and managers who really understand that we are in this together have an opportunity to create a followership.
  • What do the reward systems of a company tell you about their culture? When examining the compensation, benefits, advancement and equity structures of a company you may seek to join, where is the concentration of all of those things? Is it at the top? Are a select few treated as a heralded group of ‘I’s that keep the spoils and agendas for themselves? That may not be a company desirous of or even capable of ‘we’. Know what you’re getting into with organizations that are locked into non-collaborative structures which exclude the voice of teams.

Leading or joining a ‘we’ based culture isn’t impossible. It also isn’t easy. But if we are committed to having incredibly diverse ideation processes and building decision making structures that invite new thinking, acting as a ‘we’ may be the most powerful aspect within your company culture. If your leadership team has the courage, generosity and empathy required to build a powerful team based on ‘we’, you may find success the likes of which you never dreamed.

– By Kimball Carr