Pass the pronoun test

by | Oct 29, 2012 | Blog | 2 comments

Can you pass the pronoun test?

What about your employees and other work colleagues?

The pronoun test is not a trick grammar quiz.

Instead, it’s a simple diagnostic tool for assessing the health of your organization. Former US Labor Secretary and now University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich devised the test, which Dan Pink explained in his best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

Here’s how to apply the test. Listen carefully to the pronouns people use when they talk.

If you hear first-person pronouns, such as “we,” “our” and “us,” congratulations!

Your organization passes the test; you have more of an ownership culture. People view themselves as active participants rather than sideline spectators. You’ve got a clear path ahead of you on this front in terms of implementing your strategic initiatives.

(By the way, if you hear lots of “I”’s—which is another first-person pronoun—you may be in the danger zone of entering a narcissist community. We’re not even going to go there now….)

However, if you hear more third-person pronouns, such as “they” and “them,” you’ve got a different situation on your hands. You’re with renters, not owners. Reich goes farther and says that “they” suggests “at least some amount of disengagement and perhaps even alienation.” And from a perspective of implementing your strategic initiatives, you may have to move a mountain to get to the apartment building of renters you’re working with.

For example, getting people to move from “them” to “us” can be a lot more challenging than switching from “me” to “we.”

Also, keep in mind that many of us may not even be conscious of the pronouns we use. And even though some of us like to ace all the tests we take, we may not know we’re being quizzed.

This pronoun test came to my mind a few weeks ago when I attended a panel discussion on entrepreneurship and innovation, sponsored by Northwestern University and its McCormick School of Engineering.

One of the panelists, a serial entrepreneur whose latest startup was bought by Twitter, kept referring to Twitter, his employer, as “they.”

Considering that Twitter bought the start-up more than a year ago and Twitter remains a very hot company that attracts many qualified job candidates, I was taken aback by the panelist’s third-person pronoun references. Wonder when he’ll bolt to start another venture?

The pronoun test came up again last week during a conference call with all salaried workers for one of my clients, although the company president didn’t name the test. He addressed the behavior instead.

As the president was closing the monthly Change Checkpoint Calls, which provide updates about the company’s transformational change journey, he complimented one of the participants. This individual shared his experiences—and successes—working with teams in the new matrix organization. And he used first-person pronouns in his account.

After reinforcing the importance of teamwork, the president then added in his closing remarks for the call, “This is your company. If you say ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you delay the transformation.”

How’s that for being direct about the importance of first-person pronouns?

(For information about these Change Checkpoint Calls, see Dance the check-check-check to results.)

Later, while visiting Cuba, I also applied the pronoun test. During a People-to-People lecture in Cuba with our group from the World Affairs Council, an esteemed Cuban economics professor discussed the economic reforms the country is undergoing. Throughout the talk, the professor kept referring to “they” instead of “we.” Hmm. Does he really believe in the change and whether citizens can play a role?

Now it’s time to listen to yourself and others you work with. Are you demonstrating engaged ownership with your use of first-person pronouns?


  1. Deb Nystrom

    It’s elegantly simple, Liz! It’s yet another diagnostic of what could be helping or ailing organizations. Sharing on ScoopIt and Google+ Wonderful summary of the issue, Thanks!

    ~ Deb

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Deb!

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