Nov 5, 2010 3 min read

Leadership, Trust and Pronouns

Leadership, Trust and Pronouns

I’m struck by the words people choose, and by how their pronouns reflect their management style. In particular, I’m working with a team that’s been hungry for leadership and trust – and is now blossoming. This provides me with an excuse to recap what we all (should) know about leadership, trust, and how the words we use shape the behavior of our organizations.

A thoughtful choice between “I” and “we” and “you” is a reflection of the workplace emotional temperature: are managers and executives motivating line employees to do their best, or “throwing them under the bus?” Are we rewarding cross-functional cooperation and market impact, or angling for promotion and impressing our peers?

Consider the last time you were in these situations, and see if you can spot the response that demonstrates leadership while building trust.

Situation: you’re the Director of Product Management, in a weekly senior staff meeting. One of your peers says that Bob, a PM on your staff, missed some go-to-market items that will delay shipment of a new product. Is your first response…

  • You Marketing and Sales Ops folks are burying us in paperwork. We can’t ever get products shipped!”
  • I’ll find Bob and fix what he screwed up.”
  • “New issue for me. Let me get with my team, find out if there was a problem, and see how we can fix it.”

Situation: same weekly senior staff meeting, announcing that the company is succeeding in a new market segment.

  • “Anything else on the agenda? I’m late for my next meeting.”
  • “Now we can cancel those special sales incentives.”
  • “Sara (a sales rep) really helped Bob (my product manager) understand how to position and price that new offering, which made a huge difference. And by the way, Training did a terrific job rolling this out to our channel partners.”

Situation: you (as product manager) and members of the development team are showing rough mock-ups to internal stakeholders.

  • “Let’s see if engineering got the requirements right.”
  • “These were built from your committee’s document. I’ll have to start the process again if you want any changes, but let’s go through the mock-ups anyway.”
  • “Here are some great mock-ups that Christine and Ben built. My specs were probably incomplete, though, so let’s walk through it and see what I missed.”

Situation: QA finds an awkward bug late in the software testing cycle, and your release date is now in danger.

  • “Why didn’t you have a test for this before? How come you’re finding this so late in the process?”
  • “I can’t believe the developers wrote such crap. Whose module is this?”
  • “Cool! That’s a test combination I would never have thought of. Let’s get QA and Dev together for a quick huddle, talk through the bug, and look for a fix that will keep us on the release schedule.”

Situation: VP of Product Management at the all-company meeting announcing a new product

podium talk

“I’m thrilled to announce this breakthrough. Let me tell you how this will drive revenue…”

  • “Finally, we won’t be selling second-rate products. I know that Sales has struggled to move the stuff that Engineering built last year. Here’s our new magic bullet.”
  • “You don’t normally see the people who create these terrific products. Here’s Bob, who’s going to briefly point out some individuals and departments that were key to building this, after which he’ll give you a very quick demo…”

And so on.

These examples present three different management postures: defensive, aggressive and inclusive. Second-rate managers are often defensive about anything that might sully their reputation. Second-rate managers with more political savvy can be aggressive: pre-emptively blaming others to distract from their own shortcomings. First-rate managers are inclusive: celebrating the successes of teams, and embracing responsibility when there are issues to resolve.

As a leader and manager, you want to be transparent with praise (it passes through you to the individuals who do real work) and opaque with criticism (blocking blame and taking ownership until the real facts can be sorted out.) The pronouns you pick reflect your attitude. And the trust you build is a huge contributor to shared success. No one wants to be thrown under the bus.

Sound Bytes

“I” own this issue until we understand it better. “She” made terrific contributions worthy of recognition. “We” get to share success and cross-functional trust.

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