Which is it? We or they?

By on July 19, 2017
Which is it? We or they?

The anger he felt was palpable. He spoke. I listened. “They don’t care about us. They never listen to us. They think we’re idiots.

Obviously, phrases like “don’t care,” “never listen,” and “we’re idiots” reflect loud and clear the anger felt by this worker. But what really caught my attention was his continual use of the word “they” to describe the company for which he worked and “we” when talking about his fellow workers. There were two sides in his company: One was “they” and the other “we.”

So is his choice of these words a trivial issue?

Absolutely not.

I’d suggest that, on the contrary, it’s an incredibly important issue. It’s important because his use of the word “they” made perfectly clear that he had no emotional involvement with the company. He had detached himself from the company. Whether or not the company was successful was, at a very personal level, irrelevant. After all, why should he care about “they” if “they” don’t care about “we/us”?

And if this worker doesn’t care about “they,” i.e., the company, how’s this going to impact the quality of his work? To state what should be obvious to everyone, it’ll have a very negative impact. He’ll be going through the motions of work, but have no feelings of pride about what he’s doing. And pride in work is the foundation of quality work. No pride, low quality.

I did work in automotive plants in Detroit in the 80s and observed first-hand the impact of “no pride, low quality.” There was a lot of anger in the workforce. It was all about “they” and “we.” Most workers were just going through the motions and the quality of the cars they built reflected their lack of interest in the product. Some were even sabotaging the quality of these cars by doing things like dropping nuts and bolts into the door frames so they would rattle when driven.

What I observed was light years distant from Henry Ford’s observation that “quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.” Ford knew that if the drive to do quality work wasn’t internalized there was little chance that it would happen “when no one is looking.”

To get right to the heart of the matter, if a desire to do quality work isn’t an integral component of what a worker thinks and feels, quality work won’t happen. And people do quality work for “us,” not for “they.”

So listening to how workers talk about a company and noting the frequency of the words “they” and “we” in their language is a very important measure of the reliability of quality work.

How can “they” thinkers be transformed into “we” thinkers? I’d suggest that this transformation should start with making this statement the organization’s “True North,” i.e., those ideals which provide a compass that guides the organization toward what it wants to be and what it wants to become.

All actions we take will be measured against the degree to which they support the defining characteristics of our workplace which are respect, trust, and candor.

And what are some actions that a company’s executives and managers can take to build and nurture these qualities? Here are some.

To build respect:

To build trust and candor:

  • Make sure workers know that the company wants them to tell it like it is.
  • When workers “tell it like it is,” listen, absorb what they’re saying, and don’t get defensive. Remember they’re not criticizing a person, they’re criticizing a process.
  • Guard against thinking of negative comments as just complaints and against thinking of workers who make negative comments as just complainers. As soon as this happens, worker input has been trivialized.
  • Openly share problems the company is experiencing and ask workers for their thoughts on how to address these problems.
  • Nothing builds trust like financial transparency. One of the most successful companies I’ve worked with in terms of having a workforce that always thinks “we” rather than “they” is one where the owner of the company regularly reports to the entire workforce on the company’s financial performance in detail. I’m continually amazed by company owners who treat corporate finances like state secrets. If making more money is the goal, than the importance of letting workers know how the company is progressing toward meeting this goal should be obvious. To not do this is the same as saying, “We’ve got this goal but we’re not going let you know how we’re progressing in meeting it. That’s a secret.

Without respect, trust, and candor as the defining characteristics of a workplace, the flow of information is going to be crippled. And without accurate, real time information, leaders can’t lead. Without respect, trust, and candor workers will continue to describe themselves as “we” and the company as “they.” And when this happens, quality and productivity will be compromised.

Finally, Lean thinking and work processes build respect, trust, and candor. I’d appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the ways in which the training and consulting services of St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group could be put to work in your organization to transform “they” thinkers into “we” thinkers. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let’s arrange a time to talk. I look forward to it.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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