A former boss once felt it important to tell me that an accolade I received at work was not mine alone, but belonged to the entire team. I found this information puzzling, since I had already assumed that, and had 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, whether they're spoken, printed or on a screen. Yet the way we use words affects our image, and can help or hinder advancement. In a business environment, there's a language of leadership that remains more masculine in nature and an expectation persists that women must learn that language to get ahead.
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 behaviour in her book Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work – women often said "we" in reference to their work while men often said "I," even if they had not done the work on their own.
"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 in Washington. This sort of modesty often resulted in them being underestimated or seen as lacking in confidence and leadership abilities, she added.
That impression is conveyed in more than just the use of 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, the author of How Women Mean Business and chief executive officer of 20-first, a global consulting firm based in London that helps companies build gender-balanced businesses .
Companies often promote people who want to be promoted, or show drive, and demonstrating that desire verbally plays an important role, she said.
Many companies unconsciously 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 work force who are no longer willing to emulate typical male approaches.
Luckily, Ms. Wittenberg-Cox believes a shift is taking place from the traditional pyramid-style leadership structure, headed by a high-profile leader, to a flatter 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 – one that women might find comes more naturally.
Lynn Harris, who runs an executive development practice in Montreal and who is the author of Unwritten Rules: What Women Need To Know About Leading in Today's Organizations, also believes that the corporate world is slowly recognizing the power of more collaborative language, even if many still value the strong, directive "male" style of leadership.
"In our society women are expected and raised to be more 'other centred,' to find common ground, and to be collaborative rather than competitive. All of this lends itself to women being great candidates for leadership," under this emerging style of management, Ms. Harris said.
This isn't to say that the "we" will overtake the "I" any time 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, said Lisa Mattam of Toronto-based Mattam Group, a management consulting firm whose areas of specialty 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," Ms. Mattam said.
For the linguistically astute employee, a heightened awareness of language may provide 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" when it comes to the language of leadership.