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updated: 10/14/2013 8:19 AM

Leaders, keep an eye on 'I'

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By Joyce E.A. Russell, Special to The Washington Post

"Alone we can do so little. Together, we can do so much." -- Helen Keller

Have you ever listened to a leader give a talk to clients or customers and noticed how often he or she said "I" did this and "I" did that? When his/her staff are in the audience, I always wonder what they must think about this. Do they feel marginalized?

Setting the right tone can be difficult. In U.S. culture, we are taught to take credit for our individual work and to stand out in front of people so that they understand our personal contributions. We are taught to be aggressive in promoting our own accomplishments. We think that if we put the spotlight on our selves, that we will get promoted faster.

But while it is important to be confident, the reality is that when others, even higher-ups, hear all this "I" language, it is disconcerting to them. Rather than giving them an impression of our strengths, it highlights an arrogant side of us. And research shows that one of the attributes that can derail a leader is arrogance or boldness.

The Korn/Ferry Institute created a "Me-O-Meter" to try to describe when someone goes too far. If a leader uses the words "I", "me", and "my" (versus "we", "us", and "our") more than once in 15 minutes, they are considered egotists and not selfless leaders. Similarly, a Wall Street Journal article suggested that the more times a chief executive used the first-person pronouns (I, me, my) vs. we, us, our, the less likely the CEO was able to complete a mergers and acquisitions deal.

There are other issues as well. One of the chief downsides of all this self-promotion is that it can really demoralize a team. Staff members do not feel a part of things when the leader takes all the credit. An "I did this" mentality promotes more selfishness, and over time, leaders may even start believing more and more in their own hype, deluding themselves into feeling they really did do everything themselves.

Leaders who refer to work as theirs alone or "my team did ... " convey a different message to customers and others than "our group did this project." They can comes across as less team-oriented than someone who shares the credit.

Some have found there can be gender differences in the use of "we" vs. "I" language. Deborah Tannen, a well-known author on the communication styles of men and women at work, noted that women often say "we" at work, while men often say "I," even if they had not done the work by themselves. Women seem to use a more collaborative style and be more "other" centric than men at work. While women could promote themselves more, their collaborative style is often well appreciated by colleagues at work.

Of course, there are times when a leader should say "I" -- namely, when he or she makes a mistake and needs to apologize or when he or she wants to recognize someone. Or when a leader wants to show confidence about his or her view: "I believe the company should focus on markets in ..." So it's not that leaders should totally drop the word "I" from their vocabulary.

Saying "I" occasionally is not the problem. Saying it all the time is cause for concern. Be careful not to overdo it. Get someone to listen to your messages and give you feedback on your "I" vs. "we" language.

Remember that using "I" terms can be done at the expense of a team-based culture. There are times when speaking as a group "we accomplished this goal" or "the senior leadership team and I would like to say" might be valuable in showing a team-based approach.

Leaders speak not just for themselves, but for the companies they serve. They are managers and leaders because there is too much work for any one person to do. They would be good to remember this.

• Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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