Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

A huge leadership demotivator – “I”

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

A colleague from the Midwest works for a very successful private company in a leadership role (no, NOT my Chicago based son for those of you who know me). In a recent conversation, things got around to how disappointed he is in how the company owner frequently demotivates people with his continued use of the pronoun “I.” And he isn’t using “I” to take responsibility, accountability or express an opinion. Rather it’s in the form of he is the one taking the risk, he is the one who must make payroll and he’s the one who is under the most pressure.

Of course, this started me thinking about the many conversations I’ve had with executives and owners in business here in Southern California. I didn’t only think about previous conversations, rather I also made note of the current conversations over the last couple of months since my friend and I spoke about this topic. I noticed that the truly successful leaders were careful and consistent in how they used “I,” “we” and “you.” I also noted that I rarely hear the oft repeated complaint, “Why can’t employees act like owners?” from these leaders.

These owner/leaders made “I statements” to express opinions, such as “I believe the market is softening for our laser product. What are you seeing?” They made “I statements” to take responsibility such as, “I wasn’t clear on that explanation. Let me try that again.” They used “I statements” to take responsibility and accountability for tasks such as, “I will make sure I get the financial reports you need turned around no later than 5 days after the close of the books at month end.”

They were very careful to use “we” kinds of statements for most other conversations. “We need to make sure the revenue is up for year end or we will not be able to meet budget for the new hires we want.” Or “We have to make sure that the accounts receivable are current to no more than 60 days or we will not be able to make payroll.” And, “We need to launch that new product by 2Q14 or we will lose market share to Acme.”

It occurs to me that when an owner/leader says things like “The new product must get out by 2Q14 or I will lose market share to Acme,” or “If revenue isn’t up by 5% this week I will not be able to make payroll” that s/he has immediately assumed all responsibility for the task at hand and absolved all responsibility of other team members. My thoughts would be, “Well, if YOU have to make payroll or YOU have to gain or keep market share, then I need not worry. You’ve got it and you’ve clearly excluded me. If you are the only one at risk in this business, then I’m not going to act like an owner and take risks because I don’t have the right to do things that will risk your capital assets. I want to keep my job (maybe).

How are you at practicing this leadership quality? Are you careful and consistent with how you use inclusive language? Do you give control or do you take control? If you take control you create followers not leaders. Leaders are people who act like it’s their business, followers wait for instructions and definitely avoid any risks. The quickest way to take control is to use “I statements” in a way that absolves others of responsibility and/or accountability. Demonstrate and create leadership by giving control and responsibility. Hold people accountable and allow yourself to be held accountable as well.