When working with large organizations, I frequently hear a surprising level of consensus about what must be done to deal with whatever challenge they are facing.
Everyone, at all levels, will agree on what must be done. They will say “We need to…” followed by statements about exactly the right things, yet nobody actually does it. They just all agree that “we need to.”
I even hear “We need to…” from very senior leaders.
It’s a great car, I wish we made more of them.
– Attributed to Roger Smith, CEO of GM, following a presentation on the Pontiac Fiero.
I can’t come up with a clever name for this, but it is really the opposite of Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” where a group embarks on an activity that no one actually wants to carry out. In this case, a group doesn’t take action toward something they all agree must be done.
I would contend that “We need to” spoken to no one in particular is an artificial substitution of the word “we” that does not actually include “I.” Substitute “they” for “we” and you hear what is really being said.
“They need to…”
“Somebody needs to…”
This isn’t clarity. It isn’t accountably. It is a wish.
In Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet challenged (actually ordered) his crew to never use the word “they” to refer to any crewmate on the submarine. This shift in language was an early step toward shifting the teamwork dynamic on the USS Santa Fe. Marquet comments “We don’t have teamwork. We have a rule. You can’t say ‘they’.” but the truth was that the linguistic shift precipitated a shift in the behavior and then the underlying thinking.
This week we asked the question: What small change to their language could we challenge a leadership team to make that would shift the dynamic of “We need to” from general, ambiguous statement toward taking a step to fix it.
What should follow “We need to…” to turn it into accountable language?
One suggestion that came up would be to follow “We need to…” with “…therefore I…”
By making that thinking explicit, we might tacitly flush out “We need to, therefore I intend to wait for someone to tell me to do something.” or “We need to, therefore I am going to hope it happens.” or “We need to, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Realistically, no one would say those complete sentences on purpose, but a struggle to come up with something more concrete might trigger some reflection on the underlying thinking.
Maybe we can turn “We need to, therefore I…” into describing one step the speaker can take in his or her organization without seeking permission*. There is always something that can be done.
This doesn’t need to be scripted or literal. It might just take a self-empowered voice to ask “We all seem to agree on what must be done. What step are we going to take, today, to move in that direction?”
Action Step: Challenge your team when you hear “We need to.” Are you talking about an anonymous “they” or taking a concrete action step? Who, exactly, is “we” if doesn’t include “me”?
*Keeping in mind that “without permission” does not always mean “I have the authority to do it.” It just means “It is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it.”