The Danger of I vs We When Building a Company

by on June 6, 2013 | posted in Entrepreneurship

RossBlogHeader_IvsWE

The habit I’ve most wanted to break in the early stages of having others work at Siege relates to problems with differentiating between “I vs We”. I vs we is the pronoun choice that says very little, but also says a whole lot.

The use of one versus the other can happen more than you think. On phone calls, when talking to others on the team, in conversations with friends. When you begin talking about the state of the company, it is no longer just you. It is a team. It is not your client. It is our client. It is not your decision, it is our decision. I am not doing the work. We are doing the work. I didn’t build this. We built this.

Selecting one pronoun over the other can show a great degree of selfishness, and also, potentially, your real standpoint on a subject. Do you see the company as an entity, or was it born to wear your face as its logo and be bounded to your legacy?

The answer is almost never the latter, but sometimes, company figureheads may project that in corporate communication, which is often a tell-tale sign of company weakness. Leaders should understand the power of team, and the weakness of individualism. Communicating individualism divides team,  and is a bad choice for any grammatical situation that would be better fit for “we”.

To offer an example of this at play, we can point to recent corporate communication from Cheezeburger CEO Ben Huh. Unfortunately, Cheezeburger recently had to lay off 35% of staff, pointing towards a need to “transition to mobile”, where its users are supposedly going.

On Geekwire, Huh talked about the difficult transition:

“I want to build a long-term business. I am not here to pump up the numbers, and sell it next year,” Huh said. “This is really hard for everybody and we are letting go of some really good people, but at the end of the day I need to do what is right for the business, and if that means cutting back now to take advantage of the mobile world, I will do it now.”

To me, the phrasing of this statement is extremely telling. While Huh carries the “we” Cheezeburger mantra nicely in the official public statement, when Huh is asked directly by a Geekwire representative about the statement in the article, the pronoun turns to “I”. This reveals a more authentic statement of intent.

It should be noted that there is no implication here in reference to Huh’s ability as a leader or how it relates to their layoffs, but I think there’s something interesting (and correlative) to be gleaned from a company that is seemingly falling apart that also has a leader focused on “I” at its helm.

Good to Great

In the amazing book Good to Great, James Collins describes the main tenants of extremely successful companies, and what separates them from the merely good ones. Those traits, summarized on Amazon, are as follows:

  1. a series of CEOs (promoted from within) who combined “personal humility and professional will” focused on making a great company;
  2. an initial focus on eliminating weak people, adding top performing ones, and establishing a culture of top talent putting out extraordinary effort;
  3. then shifting attention to staring at and thinking unceasingly about the hardest facts about the company’s situation;
  4. using facts to develop a simple concept that is iteratively reconsidered to focus action on improving performance;
  5. establishing and maintaining a corporate culture of discipline built around commitments, with freedom about how to meet those promises;
  6. using technology to accelerate progress when it fits the company’s concept of what it wants to become; and
  7. the company builds momentum from consistent efforts behind its concept that are reinforced by success.

While traits 2-7 are worth thinking about another day, it is the first that speaks boldest, at least as it relates to this post. Personal humility. Not believing you are the company. Sharing credit with the people who deserve it. Referring to the entity as a whole rather than an individual.

These are the traits that lead to an extremely successful company.

It is this reality that leads to why I’ve been immediately concerned with the difficulty I’ve had breaking the “I versus We” habit in the early going of Siege Media. Thankfully, it’s not an old habit – but I hope it’s something that I – and people like me – can break sometime soon.

  • http://www.sparringmind.com Gregory Ciotti

    I agree with your point at large Ross, most definitely, but how about when it comes to creating individual pieces of content?

    As a candid example, on the Help Scout blog I refer to myself as…we, “I”, and I share “my” opinion.

    People in the comments often start off with a “Greg, I agree with your thoughts on…”, and this personal aspect is important as it makes each post feel more like communication and less like a company at large blasting your inbox.

    Thoughts on specific instances like those?

    • rosshudgens

      Hey Gregory, I totally agree. There is a fine line between using it appropriately and being a communist. This post was meant to describe situations where it makes sense to say “we”, but less humble people would default to I, such as:

      -Describing the state of the company “I’ve grown it so much”/”my client”
      -Talking about need states for the company “we need to hire someone”/”we’re making a lot of money”/

      Etc. I totally agree with moving back to I where it makes sense to, there’s just a fine line that sometimes becomes selfish where the “we” term should be used, not the self-referential term.

  • Clarkmackey

    I sometimes find that “we” can also be a red flag, when used in the context of work being performed – like a team of programmers working to build a new feature. Sometimes “I” needs to be used, not “we,” since “we” can become an abdication of responsibility. I struggle with this often in my own communications – I catch myself trying to shift to “we” when really “I” am the one who needs to act, or not act, to accomplish something.

    I like teams with a strong group identity (the “we”), made up of people who act, and talk about acting, in the first person.

    • rosshudgens

      Good point. “We” can also be a crutch that causes a project to not get done as responsibility is divided. Clearly there are many microcosms of usage that can be picked out from each – both positive and negative.

    • Katanagatari

      I definitely agree. Hearing someone say “I need to make sure our users can upload audio by tomorrow morning” sounds a lot different than “We need to…” It adds authority and responsibility behind the words. At the same time, it can lead to slacking on other parts of the team; a good leader will divide up tasks and ensure that it really is a group effort broken up into smaller chunks.

  • http://www.willcritchlow.com Will Critchlow

    I personally like the fact that Huh turned to “I” when talking about difficult things. I think “we” could have seemed like hiding behind the company rather than taking responsibility in that circumstance.

    I agree about the humble side of things though.

    • Brett Snyder

      I agree w/ Will here. There’s a subtle but important distinction between the “I” and “We” but each has their place IMHO. “I” to me speaks to personal accountability, something that (to Will’s point) is very valuable to use when talking about difficulties/struggles but potentially damaging (to your point Ross) when communicating goals, mission, vision, etc.

      “We” is better served to foster community, cohesion, teamwork, etc. to encourage everyone involved to be invested in the business and feel a sense of camaraderie.

  • Mike Perez

    Well said Ross. I think that “we” mentality is huge in creating that team environment where people feel appreciated and that they play an important role in the success of the company. I’m sure we’ve all been around people who try to take all the credit, whether in a team sport or the workplace, and it just creates a negative environment and you don’t get the best out of people (at least not for any extended period of time). Compare that to individuals who know they are part of a collective group effort and what you get out of them can be pretty amazing.

  • http://www.canuckseo.com/ Jim Rudnick

    great piece here Ross….all of Collins books are on my bookshelf….but yeah, I too think that “good is the enemy or great” as well as “…faith in the endgame helps you live through the months or years of buildup…” and yup, it’s months and months, eh! :-)

  • http://flowers.daflores.com/ Chris Reynols

    Good to great is an amazing book. It applies to every aspect of life. Focusing on adding top performers should be the ideal focus of every business.

  • Michael Charalambous

    Excellent post Ross, I love that you are thinking about this. I can only imagine that not enough leaders are thinking this way; ergo probably not leading the best they can. I try my best to ensure my team thinks, rather than me.

    Just 15 minutes ago we all participated in a group project, for which several members would’ve easily been excluded if we were that type of company.

  • http://www.acsius.com/ Arun Singh

    I think this is not as simple. While “I” can certainly mean being self-centered sometimes, “I” can also mean being involved. The boss is always somewhere in the middle – in a prefect world, a boss uses “we” to take credit of success and “I” to take responsibility for failure…

  • http://hcgrecipesphase2z.com/ Taylah Oliphant

    Exercise such as the truth that Huh considered “I” while speaking about difficult items. I do believe “we” might have appeared like covering driving this company in lieu of taking responsibility in this situation.

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  • Eumi

    “we” is powerful than I… you delivery it well thank you Maid Services San Antonio

  • brent24

    I agree from ross..because everyone needs to become responsibility in everythings…from you to become a good leader..

  • http://www.juegos2.info/ Juegos 2

    confusion sometimes keep “I” and “we” do I really have trouble. listeners misunderstood and I mean conversation impasse

  • chirisdex

    I sometimes discover that “we” can also be a red banner, when used in the perspective of perform being conducted – like a group of developers attempting to develop a new function. Sometimes “I” needs to be used, not “we,” since “we” can become an abdication of liability. I battle with this often in my own emails – I capture myself trying to move to “we” when really “I” am the one who needs to act, or not act, to achieve something.

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