We Versus I

I saw an email from a CEO the other day. In it, he said “I” over and over again. There were numerous places where he referred to “my company”, “my team”, “my product”, and “my plan.”

It bummed me out. I know the people on “his team” and they are working their asses off. The company is an awesome company and the CEO is a great leader. But there was a huge amount of “we” in the effort and when I read the note, all I could think about was how demotivated I would be if I was on “his team” and heard “I I I.”

Several years ago, my partners at Foundry Group had an intervention with me where they asked me, as politely as they could, to stop using the word “I” when I referred to Foundry Group. I asked them why. Their response was simple – we were a team and every time I talked in public and said “I” instead of “we” it was demotivating. While we each have our own distinct personalities and behavior, Foundry Group is a team effort (Becky, Dave, Jason, Jill, Kelly, Ken, Melissa, Ross, Ryan, Seth, Tracie, and me) and by saying “I” my Β speech and actions were undermining this.

They were completely, 100% correct.

Since that moment I’ve been very sensitized to this. I’m sure I fuck up occasionally, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better at saying “we.” Every now and then something really bizarre happens, like a national newscast where the interviewer cuts off the intro (e.g. “I’m one of the four partners at Foundry Group”) and then does a first person interview where it’s impossible not to say “I”, but I’m still trying.

If you are the CEO, recognize that there is a lot of “we” that is enabling you to be successful. Don’t get caught up in the “I” – it’s a trap that will only backfire on you over time. It’s often tough to get it right, but there’s so much power in the team dynamic when you do.

  • Language does (or at least can) reflect individual’s underlying thinking and also intent. However, actions always speak louder than words. Beware also of people that say all the right things but are complete phonies. Those are the most dangerous types you will run into.

  • this is especially true – and more difficult to control, I think – when you (the literal you here) have a very public presence.

  • True, but “leadership is ..where leadership goes”.

    • Yup, but I don’t think these are in conflict – in fact, I think they are complementary ideas.

  • Even worse is when I hear new employees of a company use second- or third-person (“you” or “they”) to refer to the company. It creates a wall between them and the team. I’m amazed how often I hear it — especially during the first few months of an employee’s tenure.

    • Great example of something that can easily be corrected early in the life of a company, but very difficult to fix later on.

  • Wouldn’t the best practice for a leader be to deflect praise and accept criticism: I screwed up but we did a great job recovering?

    • Yup! Success is we. Failure is I.

  • JB

    Bush on capture of Saddam Hussein;

    The success of yesterday’s mission is a tribute to our men and women now serving in Iraq. The operation was based on the superb work of intelligence analysts who found the dictator’s footprints in a vast country. The operation was carried out with skill and precision by a brave fighting force. Our servicemen and women and our coalition allies have faced many dangers in the hunt for members of the fallen regime, and in their effort to bring hope and freedom to the Iraqi people. Their work continues, and so do the risks. Today, on behalf of the nation, I thank the members of our Armed Forces and I congratulate ’em.

    Obama on killing of Bin Laden:

    And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

    Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

    Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

    • StevenHB

      I understand your point but I would note that Bush’s speech sounds like that of an uninvolved journalist delivering the news while Obama’s makes him sound like a bold leader who took risks to achieve a desirable outcome. Sometimes the effect on the audience is more important than the effect on the team who helped make whatever happened possible.

      I can’t imagine that the difference is lost on presidential speechwriters.

      • And it *was* a risk. If it had failed he would have looked weak like Carter did in 1979 after the failed hostage rescue mission. His political opponents would’ve been all over him.

    • Mark

      Great example – point for Bush.

      And it shows that the i/we rule, while important, isn’t everything. For leadership qualities, highest priority is to have good judgement. (point for Obama)

      For an analogous business example, look to Steve Jobs. Business and product judgement: excellent. Warm/fuzzy/nurturing to associates: not so much.

  • This is spot on. WE thank you.

  • This is spot on. WE thank you

  • John Stack

    Funny, even before my company had a co-founder, I said “We” except when someone was pointing out some deficiency – and when that I happened, I owned it. (“I” had to be pointed out to me too – a long time ago.)

    Thinking collaboratively, before you’ve got a “We”, if people have given you solid feedback you use, we think they’re part of the “We.” Or you’re schizophrenic. Either way. Thanks John. Great teamwork. Thanks man!

  • Great insight – learned this from one of my first business partners and since then I have been on both sides of this wall; have always respected the “We” ever since. “I” creates walls and ignores the effort of “We” – amazing how such a small word shift can mean so much to morale and culture.

  • I’m glad you wrote about this. I’ve experienced this first hand and it was extremely demotivating. Next to my desk I have a quote, “The ‘Team’ wins, or ‘I’ fail.” That, to me, is one of the few acceptable times to use “I”.

    The team is working its ass off and they’re owed recognition for any success we have. However, if we fail, it’s my fault as the CEO.

    It’s always kept me in check.

    • I was going to post the exact same thing, Joe.

      You got here before me though.

      a.k.a ‘I’ failed. πŸ˜‰

      • Haha, yes this is absolutely your fault πŸ™‚

    • agreed, I have some horror stories on this front

      The attitude of “I” also seems to trickle down pretty effortlessly.

      • It definitely does. May be no quicker way to alienate/divide the team.

  • Great post. I think when people in the company feel comfortable saying ‘We’ instead of ‘they’ then you know you have hit the sweet spot where people feel a sense of belonging to the company.

    • Yes – absolutely!

  • I agree within the context of the company; however, too much external “we” can cause some unintended side effects, especially in small companies. As a customer, if I know there are only a dozen employees and I’m pissed about something I don’t want to hear that “we are very sorry” and “we take this very seriously” and “we will do whatever it takes to make this right.” I’d rather hear “I’m going to take care of this for you.”

    Similarly, many entrepreneurs use “we” to make them or their company sounds bigger than it is. In certain circles there’s a stigma to not having a double (or triple) digit headcount so founders eliminate I from their vocabulary as a crutch.

    • Great example. This links back to “success is we, failure is I.” As a customer, when something doesn’t go well, you want to hear an individual (I) take responsibility.

      • Bill Warner spoke about this at TechStars for a Day in Boston a couple of weeks ago … he said that early cofounders often hide behind “we” to avoid expressing their real opinions and wind up sounding timid (which can lead to being timid).

        I’ve struggled with both – using “I” too much from being focused on my own perspective instead of customers’ … and I found myself hiding behind the “cofounders’ we” that Bill talked about.

        Related thing – turns out that love letters should contain few I’s and more you’s πŸ™‚

  • As a leader of a team / group / company, you are the official representative of that group of people. When you are communicating on behalf of the team, the use of “We” is kind of required.

    At the same time one has certain responsibilities as an individual within the team / group / company. A certain role to play. In my mind, And communication that pertains communicate those responsibilities, the use of “I” could be preferred. E.g. managing the team, expectations, hiring etc.

  • I completely agree.
    I made exactly that mistake a long time ago. It wasn’t my usual practice but it slipped out and was I thoroughly called out on it by one of my co-founders -VP Sales – who was right there. He was absolutely right. I felt incredibly embarrassed and apologized.
    It didn’t happen again.

  • There’s no I in team but there’s an M and an E and that spells ME. Just kidding. I agree.

  • I can say from a personal experience that the less I feel confident the more I use I

  • Interesting to hear this story, this is especially true when providing client services.

    As a member of a consulting team, everything someone does reflects upon the group. When Joe writes code that causes a bug (did QA not see it? was it not properly spec’d and approved up front?) “we” dropped the ball. If I was the one who logged in and fixed that bug, “we” resolved this issue (having revisited our documentation, learning about it from someone else, knowing based an experience shared within the team, etc.).

    “We” screwed up and “I” am sorry, this is how “we” will fix it.

    “We” built this feature and “I” am excited to share it with you.

  • When leaders accept the notion that they work for those whom they lead, it becomes easier and more natural to say “we” when discussing such things.

    • Great insight.

    • I can say that this is absolutely, positively true.

      • Thanks, Chris.

        Humility is a seed to wisdom. Each important characteristics of brilliant leadership.

    • Stated another way, embrace and internalize a team spirit. Make “we” a habit. Pretty soon it no longer requires conscious effort.

      • Agreed, Andrew. It’s an “attitude thing”. Self-importance often gets in the way, so establishing the team culture is very important.

        Remove the leader and there’s a problem; remove the engineer and it’s a problem; remove the bookkeeper, problem; etc. Same goes for supply chain: No supplier, you’re toast; no customer, you’re irrelevant. It’s fabric, not threads.

  • TNoll

    I’ve dealt with this
    issue for the past few years. One executive on the management team always uses
    “I”, except when there is blame to go around, then it’s
    “team”. It makes me want to puke. There has also been situations
    where I know someone on his team came up with the idea, but when it goes out to
    the management team, it’s “I thought of this…”

    I didn’t make this up, but some time ago I started calculating his
    “I-Factor” in emails. How many I’s in every sentence wrote. His
    factor is consistently north of 75%. It is so demotivating and creates divisiveness
    within the team.

    In all my experience, I’ve only had one or two individuals
    directly on my staff and always use we and us, except when there are mistakes and
    I use “I”. I believe framing your mind this way, overtime forces you
    to believe in the greater good of the company and really believe you are a team.

  • Paragraph three makes this post a parable. Or as close to it as a VC blog post can get! πŸ™‚

  • Humility = most underrated, under-appreciated trait in the technology/startup world. The I/we nomenclature is a surprisingly strong signal & predictor for this, though I agree – we all screw up sometimes.

  • Brad, I agree 100 percent. I always use “we” when talking about my team’s accomplishments, pointedly. I do this in downward and upward communication. And I do it even when I’m relating to my peers or even if I’ve in fact done much of the work. The fact is that on a team, most everything is a team effort. I sometimes wonder whether this strategy makes me look weak or like less of an innovator, so I’m especially glad to hear your thoughts on this.

  • We agree.

  • Corollary: Don’t use the word “you” in emails/discussions with clients too much. Don’t ask them “when will you deploy our service…when will you make the decision?” – it sounds like you’re making it personal. Better to ask, “When will the Foundry Group make a decision?”

  • The point guard mantra: help the player on your right, help the player on your left, and the one who benefits the most is the one in the middle.

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  • Right on, Brad! One of my favorite quotes in a similar vein is Bear Bryant’s, “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

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  • I would hope someone would let me know if I were heading down a similar path. I like to think I did this for people in my years as a leader and manager. In a more extreme illustration, I have had people thank me for firing them. Of course it is a little more complicated than this, but it was such an interesting dynamic. In some cases I did for them what peers and supervisors should have long before it got to the point of termination.

    In any case, great post. I hope we can forge the same type of openness in our business environment as you have in yours Brad.

  • hag

    Is I or We better in:

    Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group
    who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet
    companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

    • That’s my blog, so I is appropriate. THe description on http://www.feld.com is mine, the legal disclaimer says “They – and this blog – are in no way affiliated with Mobius Venture Capital, Foundry Group or any other company that I have any involvement in.” (see http://www.feld.com/legal)

      In this case, saying “we” makes no sense and actually undermines the legal disclaimer.

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  • Robert Thuston

    You’re gonna love this… from NPR, and how using the word “I” detracts from you power over others. Heres the most potent and relevant quote from it:

    Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. He’s looked at lying, at leadership, at who will recover from trauma.But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.”It’s amazingly simple,” Pennebaker says, “Listen to the relative use of the word “I.”What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word “I” less.To demonstrate this Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:Dear Dr. Pennebaker:I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’velearned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?PamNow consider Pennebaker’s response:Dear Pam -This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.Jamie PennebakerPam, the lowly undergraduate used “I” many times, while Pennebaker didn’t use it at all.Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to a famous professor.Dear Famous Professor:The reason I’m writing is that I’m helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. Iwould absolutely love it if you could come… I really hope you can make it.Jamie PennebakerAnd the return email from famous professor:Dear Jamie –
    Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one …and the conference idea will provide us with a semi-formal way of catching up with one another’s current research… Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?With all best regards,Famous ProfessorPennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule. He says he thought of himself as a very egalitarian person, and assumed he would never talk to people differently because of their status.http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/04/30/151550273/to-predict-dating-success-the-secrets-in-the-pronouns

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  • When it comes to my website, even if I’m the only one currently working on it, when I do customer service emails I often say “we” — whether that’s to sound like the site is bigger than it actually is at the moment or that it’s a team effort of some kind. I have had outside help, so I still consider it a “we” endeavor.

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