HBR: When a leader should say 'I' instead of 'We'

'Communications is intertwined with leadership, both good and bad'

Many managers and executives are not great communicators, but it’s an essential skill that can “make their careers—if they remember their real audience,” according to Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

And that's because one of the most important challenges for a leader is learning how to give credit to a team—and when to take responsibility—in public communications, she adds.

Complicating matters, leaders are often busy and don’t spend enough time thinking about how to share messages with staff, Kristi Hedges writes at Forbes, which ends up crimping their communication style. Leaders also are hamstrung by what a Stanford professor calls "the toxic tandem": Gaining power and influence at work can cost them perspective, just when they need it the most.

Kanter notes that staff pay close attention to how a leader talks about a team, which means that managers face a conundrum. On the one hand, they need to make their public communications feel very team-centric, in order to keep staff feeling invested and appreciated. But at the same time, leaders often need to show strength, and use phrases like “I will” to discuss plans for the future.

So how to strike a balance? “It’s important to use ‘we’ when describing positive accomplishments,” Kanter writes in HBR, “and ‘I’ when taking responsibility for stumbles and indicating resolve to make changes. The people on your team know the difference, and they’re listening carefully” (Hedges, Forbes, 3/14; “The Management Tip,” Harvard Business Review, 3/7; Moss Kanter, “HBR Blog Network,” Harvard Business Review, 1/30).

  • Seeking strategies to be more productive at work? Check out this webconference on how to run more productive meetings, send smarter emails, and set the right team goals.

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