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Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder and figure head, has a lot to say about the near-ubiquitous word, “they,” and its nasty implications for business.

“A company where the staff consistently overuses the word ‘they,'” he says, “is a company with problems.” (Read his Open Forum post, “They” Have a Lot to Answer For)

I expressed the same sentiment in The Radical Leap. In the book, I wrote the following soapbox tirade as a dialogue between myself and a character named, Smitty. For it to make sense here on the blog and out of the context of the story, I’ve taken the conversation element out.

And you may want to hold on to your stomach:

We have to get over the whole idea of “them,” and we need to hold ourselves accountable and stop looking to blame “them” when things go wrong.

It’s universal: as sure as the sun will rise in the east, folks will end up blaming their woes on “them.” Managers blame their woes on “them,” the employees, and employees gripe about “them,” the management. Presidents and CEOs whine about “them,” the board, or “them,” the analysts, and we all moan about “them,” the shareholders. The conversation goes round and round like a Tilt-A-Whirl, and pretty soon you’re not sure who’s talking about whom.

Say, for example, you’re the management, and that you’ve just distributed another employee opinion survey. You ask “them” for their candid views on the company, but 70 percent of “them” don’t respond. So you complain about how unresponsive “they” are, and then you ignore the feedback of the other 30 percent.

“They,” consequently, start talking about “you,” or “them” as you’re known to “them,” and how “you,” or “they” as you are known to “them,” don’t really care about what “we,” or “they” as they’re known to “you,” have to say about “them,” or “you” as you’re known to yourself.

(Here comes lunch).

And where does it all end up? What’s the Big Conclusion?

“‘They’ will never change,” “they” say about “them.”

And it’s all an illusion, for one simple reason:

There ain’t no “they.”

There’s just us.

Wait, there's more

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  1. Corrie says:

    The key to character-driven leadership is empathy. You have to care about other people in order to trust your character to guide you as a leader.

  2. Your post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, “people can justify almost any form of outrageous behavior if they so desire. Individuals do it. Lawyers do it. Governments do it. Entire generations of historians do it. Reasons are cheap. Explanations are tawdry. It's easy to use words (they) to make a convincing case that will satisfy the intellectual requirements of critics. Hearts, though, are not so easily fooled. Remember that deep inner feelings will always, rightly, ignore clever talk. It you are looking for meaning analyze actions not words” – sadly I never wrote down where I read this, refer to it so often for so many reasons and reasurance

  3. Ginak says:

    When decisions are made based on what is good for the org as a whole- it all works out better- must get out of the mindset of “us” vs “them”

  4. Ben A. says:

    The gap that is most externally visible and if left unrecognized and unacknowledged the most deleterious is the one between employers and employees. However, there are many levels of the us versus them mentality that have to exist as precursors to the the organization's view as a whole. Commonly we view these situations as almost case studies from the outside where an organization that is foreign to us is examined and the large scale mentality is all that we can see with any clarity. I couldn't agree more with Steve about the illusory nature of “they.” Indeed, recognizing that there is no “they” or “them” at the smallest level is what will increase productivity and satisfaction for employees and managers alike. If mutual recognition of unity and common purpose can be implemented at the lowest levels then there is chance that it can disseminate up the food chain to the organization as a whole.

  5. perspective2 says:

    Many managers refer to employees as they…here's what they are saying about loyalty…Businesses are into a phase of creative disassembly where reinvention and adjustments are constant. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed by GE, Chevron, Sam’s Club, Wells Fargo Bank, HP, Starbucks etc. and the state, counties and cities. Even solid world class institutions like the University of California Berkeley under the leadership of Chancellor Birgeneau & Provost Breslauer are firing employees, staff, faculty and part-time lecturers through “Operational Excellence (OE) initiative”: last year 600 were fired, this year 300. Yet many employees, professionals and faculty cling to old assumptions about one of the most critical relationship of all: the implied, unwritten contract between employer and employee.

    Until recently, loyalty was the cornerstone of that relationship. Employers promised work security and a steady progress up the hierarchy in return for employees fitting in, accepting lower wages, performing in prescribed ways and sticking around. Longevity was a sign of employer-employee relations; turnover was a sign of dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply today. Organizations can no longer guarantee work and careers, even if they want to. Senior managements paralyzed themselves with an attachment to “success brings success’ rather than “success brings failure’ and are now forced to break the implied contract with their employees – a contract nurtured by management that the future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are finding that their hard won knowledge, skills and capabilities earned while being loyal are no longer valuable in the employment market place.

    What kind of a contract can employers and employees make with each other?

    The central idea is both simple and powerful: the job or position is a shared situation. Employers and employees face market and financial conditions together, and the longevity of the partnership depends on how well the for-profit or not-for-profit continues to meet the needs of customers and constituencies. Neither employer nor employee has a future obligation to the other. Organizations train people. Employees develop the kind of security they really need – skills, knowledge and capabilities that enhance future employability. The partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

  6. Excellent post. It made me think about conversations I've heard which start, “This is not about you, it's about them.” It sounds like when that happens I should know that it really IS about me! Calling that you will help us save face and talk about issues.

  7. Fairycreekhouse says:

    This is really great Steve. There are a couple of things I saw while reading your post. One is that as human beings we really like to complain and we more often that not lean in the direction of putting blame anywhere but within ourselves. The other point I saw is that we really don't want to be responsible that there are things we could do differently. It is easier to say there is something wrong “over there” with “them” as a way of not being responsible for what is going on “here” with “me”. In your example of the employee survey, it is easier to complain about the lack of response than it is make an honest evaluation of what is going on in an organization where people don't feel free to give input, or is there something in the way the survey was written that got in the way of achieving the result that the manager wanted.

  8. Another great post. It is easier to use 'they' because you are not blaming a particular person and you don't have to take responsibility for any change. I see managers us the terms they, we, and them so no one is being help accountable. Specificity drives accountability. Yes, you need to take responsibility. But you also need to help others realize how they can take responsibility without hiding behind they, we, them.

  9. Great post Steve. Was just reading about the Us-Them mentality in Goleman’s Social Intelligence. Good stuff.

  10. davidburkus says:

    Great post Steve. Was just reading about the Us-Them mentality in Goleman’s Social Intelligence. Good stuff.

  11. Great points! I think that many people with a “They” mentality struggle with knowing themselves. In order to give yourself to the cause you must first know who you are so you can contribute to “US”. If you don't know yourself “They” will always be the easiest target.

  12. Spot on, Steve. Just US. Simple, but hard, but simple. What comes to mind is Tom Peter's excellent tool I use often: contrast “T”s that are found in his book Reimagine. The work of drawing the contrast between “they” culture and “us” culture is short, sweet and powerful. Perhaps by enabling leaders to see what is possible in an “US” world we can make a decent leap toward everything that is possible there.

  13. stephendenny says:

    There's a lot of power in the changing definition of “WE.”

    “We” as in a company culture or “we few.. we happy few” in a department that has a microculture all its own. When there's an “us versus them” mentality in a company, the silos form and the walls get higher, the doors shut and conversation stops.

    I've worked at both and I prefer to work with “US.”