We and They, Us and Them

3 minute read

Organizational language matters. The way we speak about the work we do, how we do it, and who we work for and with can provide important insights into the health of an organization. Time and again, we’ve observed that a very quick and accurate acid test of cultural health is to listen to what pronouns those working inside an organization use:

“In Dallas, THEY do it like this.”

“This is the way WE track our sales on this team.”

“I don’t care how Nashville wants the report. This is how WE’RE doing it in Knoxville.”

“THEY may make these promises in Sales, but WE’RE the ones who actually have to deliver the work!”

“THEY don’t know what they’re doing in the legal department. THEY’RE rejecting contracts that are necessary to OUR partnerships!”

Do you hear what we hear? Those are the pronouns of sub-optimization—when the goals of one department, market, branch, or region supersede the whole. We see this polarization occur in several common incarnations:

  • Rank-and-file employees vs. leadership/management
  • Headquarters vs. satellite locations
  • Between departments
  • Between teams in the same department

It’s okay to use titles to differentiate, but repeatedly using language that reflects we/us vs. they/them creates an adversarial atmosphere and non-collegial relationships. They are evidence of perceived duality, such as insider/outsider threat. Frequent use of ‘Us vs. Them’ pronouns can signal perceived and real power differentials, personality differences, and even cultural differences. But most of all, they highlight an impression of silos within an organization: employees are operating in their own spheres, with little regard for the functioning of the organization as a whole. This ‘siloed’ perception of operations creates duplication of effort, wasted resources, and a general lack of communication within an organization.

Another key part of this cultural acid test is pronoun use specifically in times of stress, such as missing a budget, encountering unanticipated challenges, mitigating set-backs, or when there is a threat of disciplinary or prosecutorial actions or layoffs. It should not escape leaders’ notice that embedded in this kind of adversarial pronoun talk is also judgement of and condescension regarding perceived competence, motivation, and buy-in.

We have discussed the Kool-Aid Test several times here as a way to gauge team members’ engagement in their roles and inside the organization. Whether used in the context of managing subordinates, mentoring junior executives, understanding the mission of the organization, achieving consensus, or building trust, the Kool-Aid Test gives leaders an indication of whether or not their people are committed to organizational culture.

But for today’s discussion, the really interesting aspect of the Kool-Aid Test is that it not only reveals when a team member is not engaged, but it can also reveal when a team member is ‘hyper-engaged’ and has moved into the territory of parochialism: he or she is focused on small sections rather than the whole. This is in opposition to universalism, in which the employee truly sees The Big Picture.

For this week: Like most things in hierarchical organizations, the cultural tone is set at the top, including the top leader, team, branch, and department. Organizational leaders at every level must hold those they would lead accountable for the pronouns they use and especially the way they speak about their colleagues. True leaders also invite their subordinates to hold them accountable for their language, as well. It doesn’t mean everyone will get along and agree on every issue, but it does insist on the acknowledgement that ‘we are all in this together.’ Inclusive language helps eliminate hierarchical parochialism and encourages the recognition that territorialism is something to be noticed and challenged.