What’s the Pronoun have to do with it?

March 1, 2011 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · 3 Comments

The protesters are chanting “We are Wisconsin” and I am happy about it for two reasons.  One is because it takes the center away from the right wing.  Who says they are the “Proud to be American” ones?  They take that space only if we let them.

But I am also happy about the pronoun “we”.  As a young organizer it was drilled into me that you could only successfully organize a union if the workers would say to each other and to management “we are the union.”  But I don’t think I ever fully asked why.  Why is the pronoun so important?


Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says all organizations should do a “pronoun check.”  He says, “I ask employees to describe the company. It doesn’t matter much what’s said. Even a statement like ‘They aim for high quality here’ gives the game away. The company still flunks.”

In all three instances – the Wisconsin protests, the union campaign, and Reich’s company – the pronoun signals whether or not there is a sense of common purpose – a belief that our destiny is bound up together.  And according to motivation guru Daniel Pink, purpose not only binds us together, it propels us forward.

So how do we create this sense of common purpose?  For one thing, it isn’t a “message,” it’s a lived experience.  Leon Davis, co-founder of the great union 1199, used to say “tell workers it’s their union and then behave that way.” I can think of three other key factors:

  1. Picture – there is a compelling picture that is rooted in values we identify with
  2. Part – we see our part in something bigger than ourselves
  3. Progress – we have some evidence that together we can win

When we identify as “us,” we are less judgmental and more proud.  We are less defeated by and more willing to overcome adversity.  When we hear folks in Wisconsin say “we,” we can have hope that their commitment can be sustained.  That’s why pronouns matter.


3 Responses to “What’s the Pronoun have to do with it?”

  1. Dave Snapp on March 1st, 2011 10:47 am

    Great. Well said, succinct and a to the point. Good job!


  2. Sandra Van Fossen on March 1st, 2011 12:39 pm

    Good for “we”!

    In “Leadership from the Inside Out” Kevin Cashman calls the sense of “we” the power- of-connection. It is a collaborative and synergistic leadership choice.


  3. Isaline(Izzy Boyd on March 2nd, 2011 5:20 pm

    The word WE in the union is so profound, WE ARE THE UNION,the mighty mighty UNION, We are STRONG and We will and can make a different.

    true that

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