Practice Precaution with Pro Nouns

Written by Joe Driscoll

November 27, 2009

We and they. I and you. Them and us. When and how you use these pronouns can have a major impact on your effectiveness as a manager.

Former Alabama football coach, the late Paul “Bear” Bryant understood the significance of choosing the right pronoun to motivate his team. The “Bear” established himself as a legend while building winning football teams that spanned four decades. He claimed to have but three secrets to forging a group of young men into a winning team.

“There’s three things I always remembered to say”, commented coach Bryant.

“If anything goes bad, I did it.”

“If anything goes semi-good, then we did it.”

“If anything goes real good, then you did it.”

I imagine the “Bear” was over simplifying a bit. He probably knew a couple of more things that accounted for his 700+ collegiate victories, but he understood the importance of “pronouns” when it came to getting the most out of his people.

Managers, like coaches, want their employees to “take” responsibility for their shortcomings while “giving” to the success of the group. There’s a natural reluctance to resist “taking” what is being forced on you and its difficult to “give” what you don’t have.

We know a few things about improving individual performance and accomplishing group objectives. If people aren’t first willing to hold themselves accountable for their shortcomings, “I did it”, they will have a difficult time improving. On the other side of the ledger, we know that ego and selfishness can tear apart any successful organization. When things start to go well, “I did it”, can be the beginning of the end.

What’s the answer? How can managers use “I”, “you”, and “we” to encourage the “taking” of individual responsibility while at the same time “giving” to the group’s success.

When things go bad and a manager says, “you did it”, the manager is trying to “give” responsibility. It doesn’t work. The natural reaction to criticism is defense. “You did it” is an attempt to transfer responsibility, it does nothing to help people “take” responsibility.

Good people natural feel badly when something they were associated with is not going well. They’re willing to “take” responsibility if it is not forced upon them. When things went bad, coach Bryant discovered that if he said, “I did it”, those around him would “take” responsibility. If he said, “you did it”, there was resistance.

When things go well, you can’t expect someone to share the credit unless they have some credit to share. If the manager says “we did it”, the individual will think, “how about me, don’t they appreciate what I did?”

When a manager “gives” credit, “you did it”, the individual has something to share. If a manager personally gives credit to each member of a group, their collective response will be “we did it.”

Another famous coach, John Wooden of UCLA, the most successful college basketball coach in the history of the game, understood the intricacies of giving credit and building a winning team. Coach Wooden said, “it’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” When things go well, managers must be prepared to “give” the credit to others. “You did it”.

While we want people to take responsibility for their actions, we accomplish little my associating failures with individuals. Examine the following example.

A piece of equipment in your business, a forklift, breaks down. The employee operating it at the time, Bill, reports the breakdown to you. With Bill right there, you pick up the phone and call your boss.

“Hey boss, Bill just told me ‘he’ broke the forklift. Do you want us to call the service man?”

How do you think Bill feels? Probably angry. He doesn’t think he broke the truck. You didn’t mean to suggest he did. You could have just as easily reported, “the forklift broke down”, but that little pro noun just snuck in there. It might seem like a small difference, but it can cause big problems.
It’s important for all the employees in a business to understand that they share their success. A sales person won’t get the order unless the receptionist answered the phone, the factory produced the product, the shipping department sent the merchandise, and the accounting department took care of the details.

Its important to build a “we” attitude for a winning team. But when things are going well, every member of the team needs to hear “you” did a great job every now and then.

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