You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in. Dolmatov

Communication may be the most potent tool leaders employ. The everyday interactions that are key to leadership in the workplace reflect your orientation toward others and the way you think about those relationships. A well-phrased statement can convey support and appreciation; a poorly phrased one can stimulate resistance or unintended disparagement.

One crucial aspect of this reality is when to put the focus on yourself as a leader and when to put it on others. When is it our department, and when is it my department? When is it our faculty and when is it my faculty? How do you project success and praise? How do you portray problems? When do you take responsibility, and when do you share it? Spending time now considering these issues can help you successfully send the messages you intend.

The Power and Richness of Communication

Communication has many layers of messaging -- some verbal, some nonverbal. We know the importance of a smile, a confident handshake or a sarcastic tone of voice. Our words carry layers of meaning that depend on the audience, the environment or even the topic. And sometimes these added, unintentional layers can conflict with our intended meaning and purpose.

Word choices can seem a small, even insignificant matter. After all, the "important information" you need to convey doesn't change. Yet it is far too easy to communicate unintended messages by failing to consider your audience. Imagine receiving the following email from your department chair:

"I hope things are going well. I have been thinking about the Jones problem you raised with me and am concerned about how we will look if he ends up flaming out. The department would surely take a hit with this. So I have decided that this has to be fixed, and I want you to be Jones's mentor this semester. I am happy to discuss what this mentoring would look like if you're interested (and I certainly hope you are!)."

Consider for a moment your initial reaction to this message. How does it make you feel about your chair and the task under discussion?

Let’s rewrite the email, giving more thought to how it might land on the recipient.

"I hope thing are going well. As you have raised with me, we have a colleague with ongoing challenges mentoring students, and our efforts so far have not helped as much as we'd hoped. It seems appropriate now to consider other approaches that could help him recover and improve -- and to ensure that our students are well served. Your outstanding track record mentoring students makes your insights and experience especially valuable here. For example, might you consider mentoring him as a formal assignment? Would you be willing to meet so that we could discuss the issue in more detail?"

Did your feelings change reading this second email? Which email made you feel more like an appreciated member of the department and an active participant with a meaningful role in reaching a solution?

Strengthening Identification With the Organization

Organizational identification is when people see themselves as members of a “we” -- sharing goals and values, and developing a sense of connection with the organization as a whole. In the same way, when people see their goals or values at odds with the organization's, it can create psychological distance and reduce commitment.

The research literature is replete with studies focusing on the benefits of high levels of organizational identification, including:

  • More involvement and satisfaction with their jobs and the organization;
  • Lower job turnover;
  • Higher-quality relationships with other members of the organization, especially the leaders;
  • Increased collegiality; and
  • Increased productivity.

Using We vs. I to Promote Organizational Identification

Leaders can also use “we” language to build or build up groups or to protect groups from feeling attacked. Consider the following examples.

Group Function


Group Building

“We can achieve our shared goals by combining our efforts across groups in the department.”

Group Protecting

“That characterization of our program omits key central information.”

Using “we” language generally helps create a sense of joint ownership and encourages group members to identify with the organization.

Group Building


Group Efficacy

"We have a great research group that can achieve this goal."

Accepting Praise

“Thank you. Our faculty, staff and students worked really hard and did a great job.”

Establishing Group Norms

"Our faculty members step in to help each other meet our departmental challenges." "Could you rephrase that, please, to focus on the problem and not the person? Our department values problem solving."

Collegial Decision Making

“We discussed how we can improve the curriculum by making the following changes.”

Using "I" language in such situations draws attention away from the group and focuses the spotlight on a single individual, the leader. That can leave other people feeling their efforts are not seen, valued or rewarded.

That said, you should use "I" language at times, and those instances tend to cluster around dealing with negative situations, accepting responsibility and avoiding the sense of shifting blame to others.

Group Protecting


Protecting Group Efficacy

"I dropped the ball on meeting the requirements. We have a great proposal and would like a chance to prove it to you."

Accepting Criticism

"I appreciate your concerns, and I am sorry that the deliverable fell short of expectations."

Establishing Group Norms

"Our faculty strive to step in to help each other to meet our departmental responsibilities. Failing to share that with you was my oversight, and I am sorry for the confusion it has caused."

Accepting Blame for Bad Decisions

"I did not clearly articulate certain parameters during the decision-making process that led to the submitted recommendation."

Using “we” language in these situations works differently than when promoting shared success. It draws negative attention away from the leader and focuses the spotlight on the group as the source of the problem. It can feel to the group as if the leader is using "we" language as an attempt to share blame without shouldering any of the responsibility.

Context Matters

Don’t use "we" in situations where it is obvious that there is not a "we." For example, if you make a decision without consensus from the group, using "we" can come off as disingenuous, harming the trust between you and the group. In the same vein, do not use "I" to claim credit for ideas that came up from the group, especially when you may have had reluctance about them.

The audience you are speaking to can also change the context. Using "my department" or “my faculty” with an internal audience conveys a sense of ownership that can easily provoke resentment. Using those same words with selected external audiences can telegraph a sense of pride and responsibility for the well-being of the unit in the right setting. Consider the difference between “The intellectual environment in my department has contributed to this success” and “My faculty have received three significant awards this year.”

Be Careful

Although increasing organizational identification has many beneficial outcomes, some evidence suggests that people who identify strongly with an organization (in this context, a department or university) may also be more susceptible to engaging in unethical behaviors. That is more likely to occur when employees believe it will benefit the department/university, when they see it tolerated by leadership or when unethical behavior becomes a norm in the organization. Fortunately, campus leaders can avoid this problem by being clear that unethical behavior is contrary to personal and institutional values and by modeling the ethical behavior they expect of all faculty and staff members. Building a shared sense of commitment to ethical conduct within the institution is central to the role. You must walk your talk for it to matter.

Final Reflection

Have you ever written an email or made a comment where you sent the wrong message with "I" or "we"? What was the effect? What would you do differently now?

Your words can inspire or discourage colleagues and can enhance or undermine interactions with them. One of the trickiest issues to navigate is the use of “we” vs. “I.” Choosing when to use each should be an intentional, thoughtful choice. A wrong choice can subvert your message and create unintended challenges. A wise one can be a great asset.

Next Story

More from Career Advice