One of the most powerful words any leader can speak is the pronoun "I," but most leaders are too skittish to employ it.
Parental and educational training to steer clear of arrogance, avoid taking credit and make sure everyone feels included has its place. But too many organizational heads have swung to the opposite pole. The widely accepted, silly notion that speaking about oneself indicates selfishness has driven weaker leaders into a linguistic bog where "we" is king.
Evidence? The popularity of team-building books, tapes and gimmicks and the current organizational mantra, "There's no 'I' in T-E-A-M," have spurred an entire teamwork industry. "We" has become high fashion.
As a result, the pursuit of learning about and taking responsibility for self too often takes a back seat to teamwork.
Richard Hackman, professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, challenges the current romance with teamwork.
"Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have," Hackman says. "That's because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. And even when you have a strong and cohesive team, it's often in competition with other teams. That can get in the way of real progress."
The solution, he says, is not to do away with teams but to promote individual responsibility in team members.
Beginning with I
Hackman claims the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. That means helping team members limit their own impulsiveness, manage their own time, discipline themselves to address difficult issues and think about their own contributions to team problems.
If every team member developed this focus on self-rather than the focus on teamwork, per se- would teamwork ironically improve? It's a good bet.
But leaders can't guide their teams to an unfamiliar place. To promote self-responsibility in others, leaders should communicate more clearly about themselves using the pronoun "I."
"I" strengthens a leader's communication in six specific situations: clarifying your position, building stronger connections, setting limits on invasiveness, sharing beliefs, giving constructive feedback and challenging others. Here are some examples.
Clarifying your position:
"I will design the initial framework for our strategic plan."
"I didn't deliver on time, and I apologize for that."
"I want to extend our meeting by 30 minutes."
Building stronger connections:
"I'm thinking about how to rearrange our project priorities, and I would like your ideas."
"I don't know my way around this technology, and I need your help."
"I want to get a meeting date with you."
Setting limits on invasiveness:
"I will meet with you, but only for 20 minutes."
"I want to handle this without your involvement."
"I don't resolve issues; I help people who come to me resolve their own issues."
"I believe that managers cannot lead others if they are lost themselves."
"I am interested only in win-win relationships."
"I believe high performers do not need to be held accountable."
Giving constructive feedback:
"I have seen your reports and have found them impeccable."
"I don't understand your rationale for requesting input if your mind is already made up."
"I question your motives in firing Janice."
"This is not a proposal I am proud of."
"I will be staying in my position for at least five years."
"I am not clear right now and won't be deciding until next week."
Despite the power of "I" positions, many leaders shy away from sharing their own thinking. Some claim they are not accustomed to talking about themselves or don't have much to say unless the topic is a task or project. Others view self-disclosure as unprofessional and "not why we're here."
Leaders who are uncomfortable with "I" positions usually resort to less responsible "you" and "we" language. These leaders say:
"You need to get your application in by Tuesday."
"You're not hearing me!"
"We need to understand we are not as good as we think we are."
"We all know that people in this office work harder on Mondays."
Notice how the above "you" and "we" positions easily slip into blaming or consensus peddling, concealing the leader's actual viewpoint.
Two benefits of 'I' positions
Leaders who talk about their own views bring two benefits to their organizations. First, knowing what their leader expects, wants and believes tells followers where the leader stands and informs their understanding of where the organization is going. When leaders take clear "I" positions, their followers relax in much the same way that children calm down when they know their parents are in charge.
Second, whenever a leader takes a stand, the organization moves closer to a culture of responsibility. In this way, self-defined leaders, by their own example, challenge others to develop self-clarity.
The childish idea of avoiding "I" deserves a second look. You cannot be a good team member- or leader-if you don't have a self.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.7/6/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.