Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Do your employees work “for” you, or “with” you? When discussing team accomplishments, do you say “we” or “me”? Is your employee “staff” or “a colleague”? Do you say “my team” instead of “this team”?
How you describe your employees matters, because it does a lot to signal autonomy. Workers who feel autonomous tend to be more effective. Using inclusive language in the workplace is a small but significant way that employees and employers can create a positive workplace culture and signal that everyone’s voice is welcome at the table.
Leaders can break down hierarchies
As a boss, it’s important and humbling to remember that employees work for the company, not specifically for you. Even if there’s a strong loyalty to an individual, most people in a corporate environment will feel a close identity tie to the company. As proof, bosses also change, and people don’t leave with them very frequently.
Here’s one case study: When John Timpson, CEO of a U.K. shoe chain was asked whether calling employees “colleagues” was disingenuous, Timpson, explained that it wasn’t.
He knew that he was the boss, but he wanted to make a point to his employees about avoiding hierarchies: “We use the word ‘colleague’ rather than ‘staff’ or ’employee’ because we want everyone to recognize that the usual rules of command and control don’t apply at Timpson….We thought hard but couldn’t find a better name than colleague. Neither ‘associate’ nor ‘teammate’ felt right. ‘Comrade’ gave the wrong vibes and, although ‘partner’ is perfect for John Lewis, our people don’t have shares in the business.”
The royal “we” is different from the teamwork “we”
King Henry II started using the royal “we” in proclamations to show his constituents that he was speaking on behalf of himself and for God. It’s a good strategy for a King: it’s hard to argue with divine will.
Now that most Western monarchies are only for show, the context around the word has changed and a Harvard Business Review article argues that leaders who use plural pronouns like the royal “we” are seen to be more inclusive, considerate leaders.
The researchers studied pronoun use among individuals in the workplace and found that it would signal a person’s status in the workplace.
Workers who were lower on the totem pole used more singular pronouns like “I” compared to people at the top. Leaders would use more “we” pronouns compared to their underlings. The researchers suggested that this was because “[p]ronouns help to signify a speaker’s focus of attention” and leaders needed to have more of an outward focus than other workers.
By using more “we” and “us,” leaders were signaling that they were thinking beyond their individual needs and cared about the thoughts and feelings of others.
Language signals respect and power
There are takeaways outside of the workplace that we can look to as cautionary tales.
The Chicago Tribune described Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the nameless ex-boyfriend of actress Olivia Munn in a headline about their breakup. Some men were disgruntled at seeing Rodgers given short shrift, with one tweeting that the paper needed to “respect that man!”
Whether or not you agree with that opinion about Rodgers, that’s what these language debates around possessive terms come down to: individual respect.
How you are defined in conversations signals how people see you and how you will be remembered. Employees and employers can signal that they see people as important when they make their language accessible and inclusive, so that employees feel empowered.