Shifting from Me to We
Listen to the Language
When I speak with leaders I tend to tune into their language so I can understand their orientation toward the team. Some leaders speak about themselves profusely, using the words “I” or “me” so often that it sounds like they the only person in the company. Sometimes these leaders refer to the team as “my” team, as if the team is some type of possession.
"Me", "my", and "I" language is usually accompanied by "them" and "they" language. This includes everyone else. A variation of this dichotomy is us and them language which is designed to distinguish and ultimately separate the minority from the majority .
On the other end of the spectrum, some leaders use “we” language. This approach is inclusive, and free from status defining terms. When these leaders speak about their teams they naturally use the words “we” and “our”. These leaders instinctively perceive the team as a unit that they are a part of, so when they speak, there is no attempt to differentiate between themselves and other members of the team. While this can be a healthy practice, under some circumstances it can be a way of shifting blame. When the intentions behind "we" language use are honourable, it can have very positive outcomes,
Language is a cultural indicator providing insight into the accepted norms and structures within cultures. It should not be considered in isolation because there are multiple values and assumptions that contribute to cultural patterns.
The "Me" Imbalance
An unproductive “me” mentality is one where a person is preoccupied with their personal agendas. They connect their self-esteem or sense of achievement with external success measures. In fact, everything they do, every decision they make is to ensure they preserve their personal agenda. When a “me” mentality is limited in this way it destabilizes the team, creating imbalances.
When an impaired “me” mentality becomes prevalent within a team it can manifest as highly political dynamics where persons are competitive, only caring about themselves and how others can help them advance their personal agendas. They are takers, not interested in giving unless they can benefit from giving in some way. In the whole scheme of things, the cycle of giving and receiving works best when giving happens with a generous intention, one that does not require anything in return. When there is a requirement attached to giving, this leads to dynamics that are typical of low trust.
I have witnessed senior leaders who have such an unhealthy me disposition that they are always in self preservation mode. Their confidence is so low that every conversation has an underlying theme of “How do I position myself so I can maintain my personal status? Or “How do I protect myself?” When these are the only types of questions running through the minds of leaders, these leaders are not aware of how their conversations or actions affect others.
Because their intent is to preserve themselves, their reactions can be perceived as defensive, shallow, or even dangerous. When in self-preservation mode, these leaders view members of the team as tools they should use or control, not as contributing free-thinkers whose talents can become part of an integrative solution. Unbalanced self-preservation leads to personal brand erosion, not maintenance.
The We Imbalance
When team members are so focused on supporting others that they neglect their own commitments, values or needs, they view themselves as caring, empathetic team players but when out of balance, this can amount to a lack of boundaries. When leaders don't respect boundaries they can infringe upon the boundaries of their team members, driving down trust.
Sometimes the we imbalance can cause leaders to overload themselves with work because they can't say no or because they don't want to overload members of their teams. This creates bottlenecks, or causes things to fall through the cracks. Over time, these people can burn themselves out if they are not conscious about the impact of not delegating adequately. Frustration can lead to emotional swings and this compounds distrust within their teams.
The me and we imbalances are two extremes on a spectrum. As you can imagine, if your intention is to make a shift, swinging from one end of the "me/we" spectrum to the next perpetuates distrust.
Balancing The Me and We Dispositions
Moving from “me” to “we” requires a healthy and balanced “me” mentality. This is because the “me” mentality does not disappear in the presence of a “we” disposition, it co-exists. To understand, let’s examine this way of being through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
When a leader overcomes the lower level needs of safety and security, they begin to develop a need for belonging, over time, their self-esteem grows because there is mutual respect, trust and the freedom to express their individuality. As a leader’s confidence grows and they demonstrate empathy toward themselves and others, they are positioned to tap into purpose, because their need for self-actualization is heightened.
Maslow's hierarchy emphasizes the reality that., the “me” mentality does not disappear, it evolves into a healthy state that allows you to balance your needs with the needs of others. Therefore, if you completely deny your needs, it becomes more difficult for you to connect with others and shift to a “we” mentality because by ignoring your needs, they will become more important.
The “me” disposition in its healthy state is quite necessary. When a leader demonstrates a healthy me disposition they are conscious of how they feel, they are aware of the consequences of his actions, and they understand emotional contagion and how they affect others. These leaders balance their personal agendas with the agenda of the team, keeping them in balance, not using toxic political patterns to get what they want.
The balanced and healthy "we" disposition shows up as empathy. These leaders care about others, not in a codependent way, but in a way that helps them grow. Leaders who demonstrate a constructive “we” mentality know how to communicate effectively because they are aware of themselves and how they affect others, especially when under duress.
Leaders with a balanced “we” disposition care about who made an amazing contribution and they balance this with their ability to recognize team effort. They don’t attempt to hide their appreciation of the achievements of members of their teams, nor do they take credit for something they did not do. In fact, well-adjusted leaders with a “we” disposition will even invite team innovators to present their material, showcasing their talent.
When a person is operating from a balanced “we” disposition they don’t perceive scarce resources the same way leaders do who are operating from an unproductive “me” disposition. Instead, they perceive scarce resources as an opportunity to be creative. They are more than able to find ways to use the resources they have to meet the goals of the team. These leaders can tap into the power of their teams.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an IFB and Cultural Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is also a Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Award Winning Author, and Thought Leader. If you are interested Yvette's consulting work, learning about her thought leadership or expanding your coaching or consulting practice you can connect with her at www.orgsoul.com.
Article Updated January 2023.