When I speak with leaders I tend to attune to their language in order to understand their orientation toward the team. Some leaders speak about themselves profusely, using the words “I” or “me” so often that it sounds like they the only person in the department. Sometimes these leaders refer to the team as “my” team, as if the team is some type of possession.
On the other end of the spectrum, some leaders use “we” language. This approach is inclusive, and free from status defining terms. When these leaders speak about their teams they naturally use the words “we” and “our”. These leaders instinctively perceive the team as a unit that they are a part of, so when they speak, there is no attempt to differentiate between themselves and other members of the team.
An unproductive “me” mentality is one where the leader is preoccupied with their personal achievements. They are at a point in their development where their self-esteem or sense of achievement is tied to individual success measures. In fact, everything they do, every decision they make is to ensure they preserve their personal success record. When a “me” mentality is limited in this way it destabilizes the team, creating imbalances.
When a destructive “me” mentality becomes prevalent within a team it can manifest as highly political dynamics where persons are competitive, only caring about themselves and how others can help them advance their personal agendas. They are takers, not interested in giving unless they can benefit from giving in some way. In other words, their giving is planned with reciprocity in mind. In the whole scheme of things, the cycle of giving and receiving works best when giving happens with a generous intention, one that does not require anything in return. When there is a requirement attached to giving, this leads to dynamics that are typical of low trust.
The “me” mentality in its healthy state is quite necessary. When a leader demonstrates healthy self-awareness he is conscious of how he feels, he is aware of the consequences of his actions, and understands emotional contagion and how he affects others. He is empathetic, so he cares about others, not in a codependent way, but in a way that helps them grow and collaborate. Leaders who demonstrate a constructive “me” mentality know how to communicate effectively because they are aware of themselves and how they affect others, especially when under duress.
These leaders are just as capable of celebrating their own achievements as they are at applauding the achievement of others. They do not see others as competitors, or rivals because their confidence is intact.
Moving from “me” to “we” requires a healthy, balanced “me” mentality. This is because the “me” mentality does not disappear in the presence of a “we” disposition, it co-exists. To understand, let’s examine this way of being through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When a leader overcomes the lower level needs of safety and security, he begins to develop a need for belonging, over time, his self-esteem grows because there is mutual respect, trust and the freedom to express his individuality. As a leader’s confidence needs are met and he learns to care about others he can tap into his purpose, because his need for self-actualization is heightened.
So to emphasize, the “me” mentality does not disappear, it evolves into a healthy state that allows you to balance your needs with the needs of others. Therefore, if you completely deny your needs, it becomes more difficult for you to connect with others and shift to a “we” mentality because by ignoring your needs, they will become more important.
When a person is operating from a “we” mentality they don’t perceive scarce resources the same way leaders do who are operating from an unproductive “me” mentality. Instead, they perceive scarce resources as an opportunity to be creative. They are more than able to find ways to use the resources they have to meet the goals of the team. These leaders think about the team and its needs.
I have witnessed senior leaders who have such low confidence that every conversation has an underlying theme of “How do I position myself so I can maintain my personal status? Or “How do I protect myself?” When these are the only types of questions running through the minds of leaders, these leaders are not aware of how their conversations or actions affect others.
Their intent is to preserve themselves so sometimes their reactions can be perceived as defensive, shallow or sometimes incompetent. When in self-preservation mode, these leaders view members of the team as tools they should control, not as contributing free-thinkers whose talents can become part of an integrative solution. Unbalanced self-preservation leads to personal brand erosion, not maintenance.
“We” mentality leaders don’t care about who made an amazing contribution and they are not afraid to recognize others for their achievements. They don’t attempt to hide their appreciation of the achievements of members of their teams, nor do they take credit for something they did not do. In fact, well-adjusted leaders with a “we” mentality will even invite team innovators to present their material, showcasing their talent.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.