23Don’t Resort to We/Theyism; Don’t Let Others Practice It, Either

Imagine that you’re holding a performance review with an employee who (like most employees) is hoping for a pay increase. Unfortunately, you also know it’s not in the budget. Because you hate to disappoint this person—and because you don’t want her to think you think she doesn’t deserve more money—you say, “Well, Sarah, I fought for your pay increase but you know how they are over in Corporate. Sorry, they’re saying it’s not in the cards this year.”

That’s we/theyism. It happens when a person positions themselves in a positive light by making someone else the “bad guy.” Many leaders resort to we/they regularly, not realizing how harmful it actually is. Typically, this is not a deliberate choice but a fallback position of leaders who haven’t been trained not to do it. They say things like:

  • “If it were my decision the answer would be yes, but upper management says no.”
  • “Human resources won’t let you do anything around here.”
  • “It’s above my pay grade.”

While we/they can make the leader seem like a hero by “fighting for” the employees, it has a deeply divisive effect on your culture. It can make employees feel adversarial toward leaders, and one department feel resentful of other departments—feelings that, in turn, cause communication breakdowns and hinder teamwork. Perhaps worst of all it fosters a victim mentality and discourages people from having an ownership mentality—after all, if the leader doesn’t “own” ...

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