As an Industrial psychologist, I am always very interested in what people do for a living and how they feel about their work. On an airplane, at a party, at a professional networking meeting, I often ask friends, neighbors, professional colleagues, and even strangers the following question:
"Tell me about where you work."
Then I just listen for one of two words. When they talk about their organization, do they say, "WE" or do they say, "THEY?" For example, here is what a person might say:
"I am a purchasing agent for XYZ Company. WE distribute medical devices to hospitals."
"I am a purchasing agent for XYZ Company. THEY distribute medical devices for hospitals."
The use of the word "we" or "they" is a reliable barometer of how engaged an employee feels in their work and how committed they are to their organization. It's really quite simple. If they say "WE," there is a good chance they are highly engaged and committed, if they say "THEY," they are probably not.
Here are a few examples of how people have recently answered this question:
I asked a career counselor at a small private college in Maine how he felt about his job. He repeatedly used the word "They" when talking about his employer. He had been working there for 2 years and the students gave him very high ratings. He liked his work very much but did not like the pay or his commute. His boss had left the school 4 months earlier and a search committee had started their work to fill the position. He applied but was concerned that the administration might bring in someone from the outside to be his boss. He was starting to dust off his resume for his own next job search. No wonder, he referred to the job in the third person.
I asked the same question to a fellow bowler at my Tuesday evening bowling league. About a year earlier she had started a new job as a systems engineer for a rapidly growing software company. She also used the word "they" when she spoke about her company. She related to me how unhappy she was with the way the company was run. The computer systems often failed and she constantly had to restore them. She said that "they" needed to update their computer systems to better accommodate their rapid growth.
You may be thinking that perhaps only new employees use the word, "they." This is not the case. Some new employees start using "we" within the first few days of a new job. My daughter recently started working as a medical assistant at a busy orthopedic practice at a prestigious medical center outside of Boston. She very quickly started saying things like, "We are one of the best orthopedic practices in the country" and "We have 18 different world-renowned doctors who work in our office."
The other day I asked the question of a 60-year-old sales representative for a sporting goods distributor. He had been with the company for 22 years and used the word "we" repeatedly as he talked proudly about the long history of the company and its great success.
A highly engaged and committed workforce is key to the long-term success of any organization. Employees using the word "they" instead of "we" is a red flag. It signifies a problem in the organization, or at least a problem with that employee's relationship with the organization. If employees do not embrace their work and personally identify with the culture of their organization, their motivation, relationships with coworkers, and service to customers will suffer.
WHAT TO DO
Here are a few ways to make certain new employees rapidly become "We-sayers" rather than "They-sayers."
Make certain that employees feel "part of" your organization rather than "apart from" it. The keys are to 1) Build that commitment right away as you onboard new employees; and 2) Continually remind employees that when talking about the organization to customers, coworkers, or the community, the use of the word "we" signifies that they are part of a cohesive team.
- Bruce L. Katcher
Bruce Katcher, PhD is President of Discovery Surveys, Inc. His firm conducts customized employee opinion and customer satisfaction surveys. Learn more at www.DiscoverySurveys.com. He can be reached at BKatcher@DiscoverySurveys.com or 888-784-4367.