What does it mean when a person or a culture is said to have a we/they issue? The most common explanation of we/they is when someone positions themselves positively (or at least neutrally) while positioning someone else less favorably. A classic example is a manager who says, “If it were up to me, I’d give you a raise, but administration has frozen all pay increases for the rest of the year.”
While we/they is harmful to a culture, my belief is that most of the time, the person creating the situation is unaware of what they are doing. Most people who enter a leadership role do so because they were good at their non-leadership role. While they showed leadership potential, they were not in the formal role of leading people. They may have led a team or a project, but they were not budgeting, scheduling, hiring, firing, or (and this is where we/they comes in) serving in a key communicator position.
My perception is that most organizations do not invest the needed time and capital in people who are in leadership roles. People in top leadership roles are often natural leaders; they are successful without formal leadership development. Or maybe they were able to pursue degrees in leadership. I do not have those natural skills. Like many people, I was promoted from within. Most people get their first leadership position this way. They do a good job in their role and may be considered informal leaders. Their boss leaves, and they are promoted. This is a good thing. What is not good is when they are not provided with the development needed to be successful once they’re in the role.
A common outcome of this lack of skill development, particularly for those in middle management, is that people fall into we/they leadership. Here is an example: An employee asks their supervisor a question like, “Are we getting more staff?” or, “Can our department get new equipment?” The supervisor says to the employee, “Let me ask ______________ (and gives the name of their leader in administration).” If the answer they come back with is one the employee likes, they thank their supervisor. If they come back with a response the employee does not like, they still thank their supervisor but are upset with the administration. If you hear statements from employees that they like their supervisor “because she fights for me” or “because he has our back,” you may have a we/they leader.
I know I did this until I acquired better leadership skills. At budget time, I would say to those I led, “Wish me luck; I am going to present the budget to administration.” What are the odds I would come back and say, “We got more than asked for”? Not high. Typically, I would come back with the statement, “I fought for you.” When asked about hiring more staff, I would say, “All I can do is ask; it is not up to me.” When asked about compensation, I would say, “That is up to human resources and above my pay grade.” When the employee engagement results came back, my results as supervisor were positive. Results for my leaders and upper management were not good. At the time, I thought it was a good sign that the staff liked me. Later, I realized it was not good. I looked good at the expense of others. I positioned the others poorly.
A few tips:
- If you are in a middle manager role, when asked a question you do not know the answer to, don’t say, “Let me ask _______________ (name of leader in administration).” Instead say, “I will do some research and get back to you.” You can ask your leader and even ask for tips on how to respond. This will reduce the likelihood of falling back on we/they.
- When good things happen, share the credit with senior leaders. “Administration made sure we got this new equipment.” Share the wins.
- If you are in senior leadership, survey middle managers. This can be done anonymously. Ask managers what they are hearing from those they lead and what questions they are getting. Then bring the group together and explain how to respond to what is being heard and how to best answer questions. We/they happens when people are not sure how to respond.
- Do not assume people in top positions can’t create we/they situations. Take time to make sure all leaders (including those at the top) know how to explain changes. Statements like, “This came from corporate,” or, “This was a business decision,” don’t cut it. Make sure all leaders can communicate the “why” behind changes.
Organizations with the strongest middle managers will be the most successful. Being in the middle creates a situation where the manager can feel squeezed between the top leaders and those they lead. The best top leaders don’t let that happen.
Invest in the middle. Provide all leaders with the skills needed to be successful in their role. This will create a more aligned and unified culture.