The Pronouns of Leadership

As a leader, you have three powerful tools (pronouns) that you can use to motivate your employees, build your team, and bring effective correction to a situation. These leadership pronouns are “You,” “I,” and “We.” When used correctly, they build the business. But when they are used incorrectly, they will bring cynicism, distrust and apathy to your team. So leaders beware; use these pronouns with care.

Use “You” to motivate (and not demoralize)

“You” can be used when giving credit and praise (i.e. talking about someone else’s successes). When singling out an individual for public praise, it is, however, more honoring to use the person’s name. Dale Carnegie taught us that nothing sounds sweeter than the sound of hearing one’s own name.

When talking one-on-one, leader’s use “you” when assigning responsibilities and delegating authority.

But “You” can be a loaded word and it should not be used to berate or diminish a valued employee. Phrases like “you always…” or “you never…” can get you into trouble, unless you are giving credit or thanks.

In our life experiences, “you” too often has preceded a personal label or a perceived attack on our character, perhaps by a parent, teacher, coach or other authority figure.  Because of these unfortunate experiences, “you” is a term often challenged by the brain as something to guard carefully against; it can trigger defenses to go up in the minds of your employees.

One of the most frustrating or frightening things for an employee is to have someone in authority (over them) use the term “you” as a finger pointer. Be careful not to use “you” in combination with saying something negative, or less than 100 percent correct or embarrassing about them.

Effective leaders are careful in group meetings to keep their employees feeling safe — and not feeling exposed or vulnerable.

Use “I” to focus attention (not steal attention)

When does a leader use “I?” One place is when bringing correction or needed criticism. A leader will admit one’s own mistakes or weaknesses as a way of making it safe to talk about situations that need to be corrected. Leaders also talk about their own feelings, hopes and goals (i.e. things “I” believe in). Leaders should have no problem speaking about their personal values that they will expect to be shared by those they lead.

“I” can be misused to take credit for someone else’s work. It can damage your effectiveness as a leader, specifically in getting others to work hard for you. They need to feel and get credit for their work. You personally may not feel the need for credit; but others do.

Use “We” to build up (not water down)

When does a leader use “We?” When talking about big hurdles and changes the company has to make; anything that affects “us” as a group. When a leader says “we,” it needs to be genuine since “they” will know when it is not.

“We” is sometimes incorrectly used to spread around blame. Effective leaders will take the blame and say “it was my fault.”

“I screwed up. You are working your butts off and I appreciate the work you are doing for the company and for our clients. Here is what we are going to do moving forward.”


Next time you hold a meeting or talk that is meant to persuade or motivate, think it through and script it with these three forms of speech. You, and they, will be happy you did.

Jeffrey Scott is an author, speaker and green industry business consultant. He facilitates peer groups for landscape professionals who want to transform and profitably grow their business. To learn more, e-mail Jeffrey at or visit

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