The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
Several years ago, I received a company-wide recognition for running the best news desk. Soon after learning about the award, a former boss felt it important to tell me that the accolade was not mine, but belonged to the entire team. I found this information puzzling, since I always felt more inclined toward the “we” versus the “me.”
The subtleties of language can easily escape us as we try to digest thousands of words every day, both audibly and on a screen. Yet they unconsciously impact our image, which can help or hinder advancement. In a business environment specifically, there exists a language of leadership that remains more masculine in nature and the expectation persists that women must learn to assume those characteristics in order to get ahead.
To this day, I often catch myself talking about my role at work in pluralistic terms, even when I’m the only person involved in a project. I always chalked up my “we” habit to a feminine attribute that wants to deflect any personal focus. Deborah Tannen observed this trend in her book Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work that women often said “we” in reference to work they had done while men often said “I”, even if the job was not strictly speaking in their domain.
“I saw this as one of a range of ways of speaking in which women used language to avoid seeming too big for their britches, or too self-promoting,” said Ms. Tannen, who is also a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. This resulted in them being underestimated or seen as lacking in confidence and traditional leadership style.
That impression is conveyed in more than just pronouns. “Women use all kinds of vocabulary that when men listen to it, the interpretations they make of it is that it’s not leadership potential material,” explained Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of 20-first, a global consulting firm based in London, that helps companies build gender balanced businesses, and the author of How Women Mean Business.
Companies often promote those that that want to be promoted, or show the drive, and demonstrating that desire verbally plays an important role, she explained.
Unconsciously, many companies promote women who most resemble – or in this case sound – like men, observed Ms. Wittenberg Cox, which raises an issue for a new generation of women coming into the workforce who are no longer willing to adapt and cannot find appropriate role models.
Luckily, Ms. Wittenberg-Cox believes a that a shift is taking place from the pyramid structure, traditionally led by a “heroic” leader, to a flatter, more globalized and increasingly networked one. People no longer want to be “led,” she explained. They prefer to be engaged or contribute to something greater. That requires a change in leadership style and an entirely new vocabulary of success, one that women might find more natural.
Lynn Harris, who runs an executive development practice in Montreal and is the author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations also observed that the corporate world is slowly realizing the power of more collaborative language, even if many still value the strong, directive “male” leadership.
“In our society women are expected and raised to be more ‘other centered,’ to find common ground, and to be collaborative rather than competitive. All of this lends itself to women being great candidates for leadership,” said Ms. Harris. This isn’t to say that the “we” will overtake the “I” anytime soon, nor is the singular pronoun a specifically male word. Social scientist James W. Pennebaker, the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What our Words Say About Us observed that women use singular pronouns more often than men. But he also noticed that women tend to use hedge phrases more frequently, such as “I think” or “I believe.”
Rather than vilify the “I”, it’s important to recognize its inferred power. “I” does not need to be an arrogant word, and women should learn to use it appropriately in combination with words that assert confidence, explained Lisa Mattam, of The Mattam Group, a management consulting firm whose areas of speciality include the advancement of women. Some examples of the way that plays out in language includes the ability to say “I am confident that,” and “what I have seen in my experience is,” illustrated Ms. Mattan.
For the linguistically astute employee, a heightened awareness of language may provide a window into an organization’s values and a leg up on advancement. Who knows – if companies continue to evolve into more inclusive and collaborative entities, maybe we’ll start expecting male candidates to get more in touch with their “feminine side” of the language of leadership.