A few months back, I phoned Service Canada at their handy toll-free number. My goal: to find out why my mother’s application for pension benefits was taking so long to be processed. After several failed attempts to navigate the maze of options, I successfully reached a human being on the other end of the line.
(Note for the privacy-paranoid – my mother asked for my help with the application and gave me the legal authorization to call on her behalf.)
The call centre agent was friendly and polite. She sounded like she genuinely wanted to help. Yet, she kept telling me that ‘they’ were working on the application, and her pronoun usage made it clear that she wasn’t a part of that group. The ‘they’ were responsible for the delay, but she was not.
I asked, “When you say ‘they’, who are you referring to?”
“It’s the processing centre – the people who review the applications.”
“Don’t they work for Service Canada too?”
“Yes, but in a different section of the department. The processing centre and the call centre are separate groups.”
“Should I call them instead? That way I can find out the reason for the delay.”
“No, you can’t do that.”
“So when will the application be processed?”
“Whenever ‘they’ finish with it – I don’t really know. The usual processing time is 21 weeks.”
I wish this was an isolated incident, but I’ve heard similar stories from many other people, particularly when interacting with large organizations. This isn’t uniquely a government phenomenon, but it does seem to be more common in the public sector, especially in large departments.
Imagine how things could have been different:
“Hi there – I’m trying to find out what’s happening with my mother’s pension application.”
“Sure, let me look into that. Okay, the application is still being processed. I’ll connect with our processing team to find out the reason for the delay. I should have an answer within the next day or two – when would be a good time to call you back to update you on the status? I’m sure your mother is anxious to have an answer.”
Sounds a bit different, doesn’t it? Take the word ‘they’ out of the equation, and there’s an entirely different feel to the conversation.
Organizations are made of people – organisms. Humans. Individuals. Those individuals, through their actions and words, represent the organization to the world.
If you’re an employee of any organization, you are the public face of that organization whenever you interact with an ‘outsider’. That means that you’re part of a ‘we’.
Your customers, citizens, and clients don’t care whether there are multiple divisions within your organization – government departments, ministries, branches, or sections. All they care about is that they’re dealing with “you” (the organization, not the employee) and they want their problem solved.
If there’s a problem, then ‘we’ are working on it. If a client gives you a compliment, then ‘we’ appreciate it and will share it. There is no ‘they’.
This problem can be found within organizations as well.
Front-line employees often talk about ‘they’ when referring to managers. Managers talk about ‘they’ when referring to executives and the C-suite. Anybody who is senior to you in an organization is often referred to as part of a ‘they’ – often because lower-level staff aren’t included in decisions that affect them.
If you’re a manager, it has to be all about ‘we’. What will ‘we’ do? How will ‘we’ fix this?
Words matter. Start talking about what “we” will do. You’ll build a better organization – one that operates as a cohesive whole rather than a series of loosely connected and independent parts.
There is no ‘they’. There is only ‘you’, and ‘you’ are a part of ‘we’. ‘We’ serve customers, citizens, and each other – so let’s do it right.
George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.