Beware of “we” people

At the paper where I am editor, a grating, obnoxious kid was (by process of elimination) selected to fill my old position. It’s pretty clearly going to end as a train wreck; the only variable is the carnage. How do I know? By his use of “we…”

Just days after being hired, the above-mentioned employee was caught explaining the hiring process that “we” (emphasis on his role) had decided on for recruitment. “What WE look for in a new employee is…” “We’d love to have you work with US.” It was if he had been working there for years instead of being not much fresher than the targets he was talking down to. And then of course the progression led to remarks about a company culture that he had yet to contribute to, implying about power he simply didn’t have, and generally ignoring every unwritten rule that people hold dear. As is usual for these types, they quickly absorb and draw from the past even though they’ve yet to establish themselves in the present.

We-people are worse than “Yes” men because at least the latter defers to your authority. For them, there is no “you,” only an “us” or a “we.” And by that they really mean “I” and “me.” We-people by their very nature consider themselves to be your equal–and soon to be superior. It implies rather overtly that since they’ve so quickly included themselves as an integral part of the group that their upward trajectory will soon make them its leader.

More than anything it symbolizes a presumptuousness and a lack of respect that almost always ends badly. It takes a certain lack of shame to simply shrug off the social cues that come along with joining a new organization. This is a lethal combination. It is almost always followed by regular efforts to take credit for things they had no part in. They’ll begin to discuss accomplishments logged long before their entrance, they’ll mention “decisions” and the reasons they were made despite not have having any role in making them. And then, like a virus, they start to attach themselves to bodies whom they have no influence. “When we do _______, we like to consider _______.” Which of course is news to the people who actually do the considering. Their authority becomes whatever authority they’ve decided to include themselves as part of. Their role is whatever they’ve chosen it to be.

When you hear that first premature “we” make a mental note–it could have just been an error. If it starts to become a pattern, get out while you can. Or you’ll be dealing with their ego and obliviousness for the rest of your life. Just cut them out completely. They are leeches. They’ve indicated an ability to act unethically and insultingly and that is never a positive. The real danger though is in what they bring out in other people. Their subtle threats bring out the turf-warrior in even the most laid-back people. It leads to gossip and scheming when that energy ought to be spent elsewhere. Riding on the coattails of “we-men” are epidemics of suspicion, anger, disgust and diminished credibility. And I think that is rightfully so, because more than workplace strategy this is a personal defect–an indication of a real douchebag.

And of course, everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes it’s just a slip of the tongue. People say “we” in a respectful, deferential way all the time. Not that this is about due paying or anything as petty as that. Nor is it ultimately about respect It’s about how that person conducts themselves and how they treat people and then how that affects their productivity and value. Ask the same questions about your friends. It ought to be examined in a larger context–do they exhibit the other symptoms, have they begun to sidle up into territory they shouldn’t. Would you consider them to be respectful? Do you like them as a person? If the answer is on the fence for any of these, cut your losses while you still can.

Final Note: This is an especially important topic for young people. No adult wants to feel like you’re plotting on the side to push them out of the way. You do NOT want to be the asshole kid with no tact, no respect and a bad attitude. Whether you like it or not there are certain leagues and age often determines your entry. Always remember–if you’ve been lucky enough to skip ahead–that you ought to treat it like the privilege that it is. Until it’s time, there is no “We.”

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.