How to Use “I” and “We” (and Why It Matters)

“I” and “we” are simple and common words, yet many don’t use them the right way. Misusing them can be dangerous for your company, while using them correctly can be magical. Over the past few years, I learned that mastering the use of “I” and “we” can transform your team and organization. Three authors taught me the right way to use them.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t

In this famous book, Jim Collins examines what makes great companies better than good ones. In one of the chapters, he focuses on leadership as a key contributor to a company’s success. His research shows that great leaders rarely say “I”; they say “we” instead. After reading this, I stopped using “I” in my company. I found that using “we” changes the narrative, brings the team together, and better reflects reality. I have noticed a bias to assume that leadership takes the credit of others. Using “I” reinforces this belief and creates resentment among the team.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

As someone who served in the army, I truly believe in extreme ownership and that the person in charge is accountable for results. Yet, I have learned that “we” works better when taking ownership for failure than “I.” In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz talks about one of the most common mistakes CEOs make: they paint a very positive picture all the time and don’t share negatives with their broader team. When CEOs and leaders are the only ones who take credit for failure, they make a similar mistake. I think that saying “I failed” when it’s clear that you’re not the only one is disrespectful to your team. They tried and gave it their all. When you take the credit for their failure, you’re not acknowledging their effort. Your team’s failure is yours as well, but it’s not only yours. We failed, not I failed.

Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values

In his book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman asks his readers if they’re learners or knowers. Learners seek to understand more and hear all perspectives. They realize that they don’t know everything, nor have all the information. I used to think I was a learner until Kofman asked the following question in his book: “How do you state your opinion? As an opinion or as the truth? Do you say this solution is incorrect or I think this solution is incorrect?”

What is the difference, you may ask? The first one makes your opinion sound like a fact and, when you are the CEO and speak like that, you’re not giving anyone the space they need to share their perspective. You’re not a learner. Our opinions are opinions, not facts or the truth. Using “I think,” “in my opinion,” “from my perspective,” and so forth changes the dynamic in the room. It helps you move forward together. (Read more here.)

What is your perspective?

In my opinion, understanding when to use “I” and when to use “we” can help you build a greater sense of camaraderie and team ownership. If you’ve seen examples of this in your own company, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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