Adam Drake

Culture Red Flags: Who is *They*?

Over the years I’ve advised many companies on how to improve their leadership capabilities in order to cultivate a more effective corporate culture and thereby achieve growth. One thing which is absolutely necessary for a company to thrive is for the culture to support collaboration and a sense of shared purpose. You need unit cohesion. You need the shared feeling that we are all one group, with one purpose, currently making progress towards one goal which supports that purpose.

When leadership is ineffective, however, things don’t usually work out that way.

When leadership is ineffective, there is fragmentation in priorities, a lot of confusion, and and some measure of frustration. Since people aren’t clear on the actual goal or on your intent, they start doing what they think is best, which may not be the same as what another group thinks is best, and the sense of shared identity is lost. Groups start to become distant and apathetic at best, though more often they become openly adversarial.

The example I’ve often seen comes in excuses for insufficient growth in companies with a strong Sales and Technology focus.

The Sales team complains that they aren’t able to meet growth targets because the Technology team doesn’t build anything new to sell, and hasn’t for a long time (usually longer than the current Sales head has been there). If the Sales team only had better products then they’d be able to sell them and the company would be doing well. When I talk to people in Sales, I get the response that they (the Technology team) aren’t doing a good job.

The Technology team of course defends the things they have built, and typically responds that the Sales team is simply ineffective. When I talk to people in these teams they will almost always use the pronoun THEY to refer to what has, unfortunately, become the opposing team. When I talk to people in Technology, I get the response that they (the Sales team) aren’t doing a good job.

In reality the underlying issue is ineffective leadership at many levels. The CEO is not leading the Sales and Tech leaders well, and they in turn are not leading their teams well either. The use of the word they to refer to any subgroup of an organization while making excuses is an automatic red flag for me because it reveals ineffective leadership, which doesn’t encourage a sense of ownership or responsibility, which leads to dehumanization and bickering internally, and this is where the word they comes into use.

The fix for this, like many things, is relatively straightforward. Start asking: Who is THEY? The answer should always be our X where X is some other subgroup in the company.

As a similar example, often someone is reporting that a decision has been made, and the person will often say that They decided or Sales decided or Tech decided. This is basically never true and shows a cultural unwillingness to address problems and facts. When something is decided, it’s almost always decided by an individual. Unanimous decisions in sizable organizations are not common. Again, the same rule applies, you can simply ask for a name. Who decided? Which person? What is their name?

Dehumanizing and creating distance through language is possibly as old as human communication itself. Do not let the people and teams in your organization dehumanize each other. You need them to cooperate and work toward a common goal. It’s your job as a leader to make that happen, and one of the ways to do that is to ensure that unintentional dehumanization via language is not tolerated.

So when you hear they and some verb, it’s your job to ask who this they actually is and use that as a moment to reinforce the fact that we’re all one team working to achieve one goal.

Note I assumed above that, as a leader, you clearly communicated your intent to the team along with the associated constraints, but going into more detail on that is a topic for another post.