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“We” are the problem

Too many workplace discussions complain that "we" aren't doing enough. What are YOU doing to turn complaining into action?

4 min read


"We" are the problem

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I’ve had enough of “we oughta” meetings. You know the type — those wring-your-hands gripe sessions where bright, well-meaning people get together and discuss what’s wrong with their company, their country or the world.

Sooner or later, someone always says “we oughta” do this or that and everyone else nods in agreement.

“We oughta revamp our outdated onboarding procedures.” Mmmhmm.

“We oughta fix our repeated customer service breakdowns.” Yep.

“We oughta eliminate the national debt.” Absolutely.

“We oughta eradicate poverty, end war and build a greenhouse on Mars.” Um, sure.

Nothing that arises in “we oughta” meetings ever gets done, which is why they’re so frustrating. It took me a while, but I finally figured out why: Nobody defines who “we” means.

It’s not the “editorial we,” by which a columnist or spokesperson represents his or her viewpoint as that of the publication or organization. Nor is it “the royal we,” by which someone oddly refers to themselves in the plural. It’s not even the “author’s we,” by which a novelist or playwright refers to a hypothetical or generic third person over whom he or she has divine power to determine the outcome.

No, the “we” in this case might best be described as the “unaccountable we,” a vague, moralizing-yet-uncommitted “someone who ought to do something which I am unable or unwilling to do.”

If you tune into it, you’ll be stunned at how often the “unaccountable we” sneaks into everyday conversations about life and business. Politicians and pundits use it all the time. Cable TV news anchors as well. Advertisers are particularly adept at it, coining slogans like “The Power of We,” “Together We Can,” or any one of a thousand other pithy pronouncements. It also — and all too often — finds its way into business meetings.

That’s a problem, because the “unaccountable we” is as discouraging as it is deceiving. While it’s always necessary to define a problem before you can address it, there’s little point in defining if no addressing is to be done. The “unaccountable we” is a cynical breeze with a subtle ability to blow our companies (and corporate cultures) off course. Not to mention, bum us out.

So here’s an idea: The next time you’re in a meeting and one of your people says, “we oughta,” look them in the eye and say, “you’re gonna.” Then enjoy the stunned look on their face. Better yet, raise your own hand and say, “I’m gonna,” and recruit others to join you. Adding a “thee” to “me” makes a “we” that works.

Whatever you do, don’t let the “unaccountable we” have its way. It’s easy to while away our days pontificating about what’s wrong with things, but that won’t make them better. Defining who will fix it (and how) must also be part of the equation.

Since my company has been eschewing the “unaccountable we,” we’ve avoided going down roads to nowhere and focused on what we can accomplish. And to no one’s surprise, we’ve gotten a lot more done. An accountable “me” beats an ambiguous “we” any day of the week.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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