People are often advised to use “I” statements when dealing with conflict at work. For example, “I felt anxious when you committed corporate espionage and gave my big photo spread to a rival magazine.”
That is a sentence that Jenna, the protagonist of the 2004 romantic comedy 13 Going on 30, could say to workplace rival Lucy. And it’s probably applicable in a range of other contexts, too.
Here is another piece of pronoun advice that is just as valuable and yet lesser-known, perhaps because I just invented it. (I statement!) It’s simple: There’s only one circumstance under which a boss should use the pronoun “we” when talking to an employee.*
Why “we” does not amuse
To understand the logic behind this rule, it may be helpful to review a brief history of how much people hate the royal we. According to The New Yorker writer and copy editor Mary Norris, “The English royal we, or pluralis majestatis, dates to the late twelfth century, around the time of Henry II and his successor Richard I, and meant ‘God and I,’ invoking the divine right of kings.” Unsurprisingly, given that monarchs historically have been both poorly behaved and generally annoying, the royal we came to signify oblivious self-importance, as per the apocryphal tale of Queen Victoria declaring “We are not amused” in response to a bawdy joke.
By the 19th century, those who made the mistake of tossing around the royal we were ripe targets for mockery. The New York Times reports that in late 1877, US senator Roscoe Conkling poked fun at then-president Rutherford B. Hayes’s usage: “Yes, I have noticed there are three classes of people who always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ They are emperors, editors and men with a tapeworm.” Some 100 years and change later, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was widely ridiculed for her grandiose pronouncement, “We have become a grandmother.”
A close relative of the royal we is the so-called “editorial we” found in many newspapers’ opinion pages. This tic is equally alienating, as Ben Zimmer writes for the Times: “Nameless authors of editorials may find the pronoun we handy for representing the voice of collective wisdom, but their word choice opens them up to charges of gutlessness and self-importance.”
The royal and editorial “we” both sound pompous because the individual speaker or writer seem to be asserting that their opinion has been endorsed by the multitudes, when in fact anyone can see that they are standing all by themselves, gesturing at the empty air. The use of the inclusive “we” in speeches or criticism—say, “We feel joy when Cardi B raps”—is also risky territory, since it presumes common ground where there may be none. (What if the reader is a Nicki Minaj loyalist?) As Jeremy Gordon notes in Pacific Standard, “In hiding the individual author, a consensus opinion is born. No one person thinks this thing; we do.”
This is us
In the modern office setting, there are two main misuses of the word “we.” The first case occurs when a self-congratulatory manager attempts to take credit for work they did not, in fact, do. “We really nailed that presentation,” a boss might declare at an all-hands meeting, referring to the project that he never touched but which cost his team two weeks of unpaid overtime.
It’s a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that’s difficult to call out. Part of the reason “we” has become so popular as a fall-back pronoun in contemporary writing, as Gordon notes, is that it relieves the speaker of any need to take personal responsibility for their assertion. After all, if sports fans are allowed to cheer “We won” after their home teams emerge victorious, who’s to say whether the manager in question was truly trying to get a piece of unearned glory—or simply using a figure of speech?
Equally ill-advised is the use of inclusive “we” when a manager is actually making a request that someone else will have to execute. “Why don’t we turn that around by EOD,” a boss might say to an underling while handing off a last-minute task and proceeding to take a two-hour lunch. In both instances, the manager is nominally including themselves in the efforts of others while contributing nothing in practice.
There is, however, at least one circumstance in which the collective “we” is not just appropriate but downright welcome: When the going gets rough. “We could have done a better job on that report” is an admission that both softens the blow of negative feedback for the person who is being addressed and acknowledges the manager’s responsibility as supervisor. “We need an extension on that deadline,” a manager might say to her supervisor, preferring to avoid singling out the direct report who’s fallen behind.
When we are the champions
At first glance, this guidance might seem to contradict research on how powerful people use pronouns. One 2013 study, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, found that people with higher status tend to use “we” more often in both writing and speech, while lower-ranking people are more apt to use first-person pronouns.
Here’s the key: The researchers suggested that this pattern could be attributed to the fact that people of higher status tend to demonstrate a greater focus on others than their lower-status peers. In other words, the higher-status people in the study were using “we” in a pro-social way—putting attention on the group rather than themselves. It’s in that same spirit that Jeff Bezos has historically used the collective “we” while boasting of Amazon’s successes in his letters to shareholders.
So all right, there are actually two circumstances* under which higher-ups can use the word “we.” It’s when bosses use “we” to gloss over the hard work of the people they manage that we all run into trouble.