The Language Of Leadership – Differentiate, Collaborate And Engage

female leader talking with team member

The language of differentiation

Let’s work with the word ‘I’, the personal pronoun.

I’ indicates the language of differentiation. In using “I”, you own the verb which follows the pronoun. I notice, I suggest, I think, I am aware…

Here is an example: I am in a meeting, and everyone is talking at once. What intervention might I make?

“We are talking over one another, and we can’t hear what everyone is saying.” Now, for some in the group this may be accurate, however it is unlikely that everyone is talking at once, so some in the group may feel (and be) overlooked.

Now listen to this version as you read…”I notice we are talking over one another, me included, and I don’t like it. I want to hear what each of us has to say. I propose that each of us…”

In these examples, using I differentiates you from your peers and has you providing leadership and engaging through owning your language and the direction you are giving.

Used wisely, “we” evokes the language of collaboration.

Weis also a person pronoun and ‘owns’ the verb following. ‘We’ is inclusive and indicates using the language of collaboration. However, if I use ‘we think’ in a peer group, I would bet at least 50 % of the group would disagree with me. So I would be including some of my peers in the group, who would have quite another view.
However, if I am the leader, and I am talking with my team, using ‘we’ is collaborative and inclusive.

Here’s an example: “This week, we have a full week. We need to focus. Let us look out for one another to ensure that we are delivering and find our work satisfying too.” In this example ‘we’ implies that we are all in this together.

Let’s consider our third personal pronoun, ‘You’

When used without referring directly to who you are with, ‘You’ is impersonal and immediately we have the language of distance.

‘You’ used impersonally creates distance between you and those you are with.

Here’s an example:

Deb and I were working together as she prepared for an interview. We were role-playing – practicing some questions she might be asked.

I noticed she persisted in saying ‘you’ when I was pretty sure she was talking about her own leadership approach to specific situations.

I had asked the practice question, “How do you respond to criticism?”

She replied:

You expect criticism in a job like this. You go about your everyday work and you hear moans and groans. You just get used to it as part of your job.You can use criticisms as part of a continuous improvement process.”

I wondered who she was talking about. I felt confused. Was she making a general statement on how people respond to criticism or was she talking about me? I let her know what I was thinking. I went on to say, in an interview, people want to get to know you – what your leadership practice is. They want to know ‘How do you respond when you are criticised?’ This is you being interviewed. By using ‘I’ you are reflecting on your approach and response to criticism.

I call this owning your own approach: I suggested Deb would communicate more of her own leadership experience if she were to use I. She had a second go, “I expect criticism in a job like mine. I go about my every day work and I hear moans and groans. I see addressing criticisms and concerns as part of my job. I listen and I address everyone directly with what they are raising. From time to time, I am aware of themes and then I raise these in team meetings. As a group we work out whether this is interpersonal or whether we need to adjust some of our systems or processes.”

And she and her interviewers would be more likely to engage with one another.

The language of differentiation and engaging with peers: I and we

I encourage leaders to ‘I’ to differentiate themselves from their peers when there are a range of views in the room…

Here are examples using ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘I’.

Tune into how you are included or excluded:
We need to focus on our strategic priorities
You need to focus on your strategic priorities…


Or are being given a direction or expectation:

I want to see us focus on our strategic priorities. Or,

I think if we focus on our strategic priorities.

Which of these help you to engage?

The language of collaboration – ‘we’ and ‘you’

‘We have work to do’ – ‘we’ is collaborative. Use this with both peers and in leading your own team.

You and I have work to do’ is collaborative and assists collaboration when you are working alongside one other person


If you want to truly engage with those around you, I encourage you to be conscious of how you use of I, we and you.

I encourage you to use I when you want to lead with your peers,

we to collaborate, and you when talking directly to those you are with.

If the language of leadership interests you, come and talk with me. 

© Diana Jones

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