Have you ever wondered who “they” are?
‘They’ seem to be everywhere. I heard again today that ‘they were at it again’, that ‘they should know better’, and ‘they need to do something about this’. The issue on the table was ‘all their fault’ and ‘they were the ones who fouled it up’.
Sound familiar? Of course, it does. We have all uttered these words at one time or another. ‘They’ and ‘them’ are common pronouns and part of our every day language.
So what’s the problem?
If, as a leader, your goal is to build a high-performing team, one where team members are engaged and feel safe to make meaningful contributions — statements of blame (“They”) do not belong.
1. “They” are divisive.
Nothing pulls a team apart faster than placing blame. Blame is divisive. You don’t see it often in professional sports, but it doesn’t happen once in a while. I remember watching a player interview — a wide receiver, unhappy with his team’s loss, and having not been on the receiving end of more passes, grumbles about how they would have won the game had the quarterback thrown to him more often. Or a quarterback blames his front line for not giving him enough time to make the chosen plays come together. For me, these scenes are a sure sign of the end of that team’s chances for a winning season.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear the best coaches — even coaches having losing seasons — talk about how “we” struggled, how “we” didn’t do “our” best. We all saw how the shortstop blew that last play — but losing the game is not his fault, it’s ours.
2. “They” sour the work environment.
I had a supervisor who played the “they” game. Whenever something that was in her circle of control went awry, “they” were supposed to have taken care of it. When she talked about individuals who had my job before me, she talked about “them” with disdain. They were never good enough, they were not as smart as they said they were, or they didn’t get it. On the surface it doesn’t sound like much, but it created a sour working environment. People walked on egg shells around her, scared to fail and be blamed — rather than excited and encouraged to try, learn and grow.
3. “They” don’t solve the problem.
Placing blame does little, if anything, to solve the problem. “We” can actually work together to find a solution. But they — they aren’t even in the room when you’re talking about them. They can’t help — until they become we.
We can put our heads together, talk about what happened, and find ways to keep it from happening again. We can find ways to do tasks that help us all do better. And when we own the problem, rather than putting it on them, we empower ourselves to do something about it.
4. “They” damage your character.
Words that imply blame are dripping with non-responsibility. When it comes to building good character — walking the talk, they don’t fit. The first step in meeting our responsibilities is acknowledging that we have responsibilities. How can we expect the people who work for us to accept responsibility if we, their leaders, don’t model how it’s done?
I believe it’s time to change our paradigm.
Imagine what would happen and how our perspective might change if we stopped using “they”, “them” and “their” altogether, and instead used “we,” “us,” and “our” — as in ‘we should have known better’, ‘we need to do something about this’, or ‘it’s our fault’.
This shift in language is not meant to be a way for poor performers to hide or to shirk responsibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. When “we” claim responsibility, then there is no “they” to hide behind. (If you can blame “them”, your employees can, too.) And when you trade blame for responsibility, people will take more responsibility. Why? Because when you take blame off the table, excuses tend to follow. Of course, people will ALWAYS make mistakes, forget things, miss details — whatever. And you have to factor the “human” part into your process for accountability.
I also want to add — while you may not have a person on your staff today who identifies as non-binary — utilizing the pronouns they/them rather than he/him or she/her, it’s a good bet that you will at some point. Blaming “them” is no longer solely a deflection of responsibility, but a personal attack on an individual.
The first step for change is awareness.
Start paying attention to your own language. Watch for patterns — individuals, situations, or problems — that tend to trigger a defensive response and blaming language. As you become more aware of when “they” come into play, you can make better choices in how you react and respond.
A strategy that has worked well for me is to write WE in block letters at the top of the sheet of paper in front of me. If I get pulled into a less formal meeting, then I put WE in a thought bubble in my mind’s eye. It doesn’t always work. I, too, can get sucked in when people around me jump on the “they” bandwagon. The best I can do is make a shift when I notice I’m off track — and encourage others to do the same.
It’s easy to forget, that regardless of your assigned role or department, you all work for the same company. Herb Brooks, coach of the US Olympic hockey team that competed at Lake Placid, famously said: “When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back.”
Make the change and you will see results over time.
(Let me know how it goes.)