Leadership Advice

Are you an “I’ or a “We” Manager? When and why?

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Here’s a quick leadership check for managers:

  • Find the last five memos you sent to your staff. 
  • Read them over, circling the pronouns “I” and “we.”
  • Look at the proportion of “I”s to “we”s.
  • Look at the context in which you chose to use “I” and “we.”

At first glance, this exercise is an ego check. Are you centering too many messages around yourself, your actions and your ideas? Are you putting people off with a focus on you rather than the team?

But it’s not that simple. Context is key for “I” and “we.”

There are times when “I” is imperative.

“I” is important for stating commitments, for taking responsibility, and certainly for apologizing.

Today, as organizations and their leaders are reckoning with systemic injustice and inequity, “I” statements from leaders are important. They hold people accountable.

Compare these two statements:

  • “I will review the hiring practices that have existed for years on my watch.”
  • “We will review the hiring practices that we’ve used for years.”

Which one sounds more genuine to you? Which sounds like personal accountability? 

Now let’s flip things to show when “I” sounds genuinely egocentric. Compare these two messages:

  • “When I first launched this program, I knew it was going to break ground. I also knew people had doubts. But today, I am happy to share the metrics that prove the wisdom of my wacky idea.”
  • “When we first started work on this program, we knew it was going to break ground. We also knew people had doubts. But today, we’re here to celebrate metrics that prove the wisdom of this wacky idea.”

Which one takes the credit? Which one shares it?

Leaders who are self-confident and emotionally intelligent understand the importance of inclusive communication. You’re already in charge. You have what’s called “legitimate power” – derived from your position in the organization. You don’t need to load your everyday communication with references to yourself. 

But on not-so-ordinary days, when you are sharing controversial decisions or bad news, or taking responsibility for wrongs and apologizing, the first person pronoun should lead the way. 

It’s also front and center for heartfelt personal messages: “I cannot thank you enough for the surprise birthday gifts.” “I’m proud of this team.” And: “I believe in you.” 

“We” and “they,” “everyone” and “us” reflect a genuine focus on the deeds and needs of others. That’s important.

As you write your next memo, remember that people read them through two filters. 

The first is:

“What does this message mean to me?” 

The second is:

“What does this message tell me about my manager?”

Click here to read Jill’s previous posts. Click here to subscribe to Covering Coronavirus.


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