I am not a big fan of how the word “they,” nor do I love the use of similar plural pronouns in the workplace. But before you accuse me of stoking the culture war, let me explain what I mean.

There’s been an increased prevalence of phrases—in both our society and our workplaces –that assign general sentiment, without any nuance or context. You’ve probably heard tons of generalized utterances like, “people are saying,” “I keep hearing,” “they’ve been saying,” “the company did X,” “everyone is leaving for more money,” and other vague or intentionally generalized terms.

In my experience, people use phrases like this as a crutch when they either want to bolster their own opinion by implying there’s broad support for it, when they want to avoid taking responsibility for something by suggesting that it is entirely outside their control, or when they want to avoid pinpointing the true root of the problem.

For example, in an executive offsite years ago, a leader on our team shared a concern by using this “people are saying” framework. Our facilitator immediately called the person out, noting:

“You are a leader on this team. Either express the opinion as your own or give specific examples of who you are talking so we can address the issues. We are not going to hide behind generalizations.”

It was a powerful lesson: crutches like these are especially dangerous for leaders to use. However, I’ve seen many public and private examples of leaders doing just that, especially in the past few years.

One of the most common examples is when someone criticizes the decision, behavior or characteristics of an organization. The reason this is overly simplistic is that an organization is not a physical object the way that a building, a car or even a crowd of people is. An organization is more theoretical: it’s a collection of individuals who have agreed to collaborate in support of a common vision or goal.

The truth is that even though organizations often have stated or shared values and goals, an organization does not have a unified brain or a single way of thinking or doing. When an organization makes a decision or takes an action (such as a layoff), that is the sum of the decisions and actions of many different individuals. It is important to remember the role of these individuals, rather than attributing any beliefs, outcomes or decisions vaguely to the company.

When someone says, “the company believes X,” or “the company did Y,” those are inaccurate statements. When someone lobs critiques at an organization (which is quite frequent on social media), they aren’t engaging substantively with the right people within that organization. Likewise, if someone uses a generalization to imply there’s immense support for their point of view, they make it harder for others to debate their point on its merits. Either way, this approach erodes the ability to have nuanced conversations about serious topics and to engage with the actions of individuals.

This is especially true for anyone who serves as a manager or a leader in an organization. Leaders cannot credit themselves or their teams when things go well, then lay blame on “the company” when outcomes are poor. They also can’t play the victim when they are treated “unfairly” by the company, without acknowledging that they might have also been the company or perpetrator in a similar situation to someone else. It’s more intellectually honest, and it creates greater accountability, when leaders see themselves as having agency within the larger group.

It’s important to be aware of how we use generalized terms, and the greater implications for responsibility and accountability. Here are some common generalized terms, and better ways to make the same point:

  • Instead of “people have been sharing they are disengaged at the company,” it would be better to say “a team in our Chicago office is feeling disconnected from the larger org.”
  • Instead of “everyone thinks X,” it would be better to say “I believe X and I am willing to bet I’m not the only one.”
  • Instead of “the company doesn’t care about X,” say “I get the feeling that Person A and Person B don’t care about X, and here’s what they have done to make me believe that.”
  • Instead of “They told me X,” it would better to say “The accounting team told me X.”

The words we use can either empower or disempower us within an organization. Let’s have the courage to stop hiding behind generalizations, unnamed forces and inanimate objects, and recognize our power to create a better outcome.

Quote of The Week

“All generalizations are false, including this one.”


–Mark Twain