The Acid Test for Employee Engagement

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

As an Industrial psychologist, I am always very interested in what people do for a living and how they feel about their work. On an airplane, at a party, at a professional networking meeting, I often ask friends, neighbors, professional colleagues, and even strangers the following question: "Tell me about where you work."

Then I just listen for one of two words. When they talk about their organization, do they say, "We" or do they say, "They"? For example, here is what a person might say:
"I am a purchasing agent for XYZ Company. We distribute medical devices to hospitals."
or, "I am a purchasing agent for XYZ Company. They distribute medical devices for hospitals."

The use of the word "we" or "they" is a reliable barometer of how engaged an employee feels in their work and how committed they are to their organization. It's really quite simple. If they say "We," there is a good chance they are highly engaged and committed, if they say "They," they are probably not.

Here are a few recent examples of how people have answered this question:

  • I asked a career counselor at a small private college in Maine how he felt about his job. He repeatedly used the word "they" when talking about his employer. He had been working there for two years and the students gave him very high ratings. He liked his work very much but did not like the pay or his commute. His boss had left the school four months earlier and a search committee had started its work to fill the position. He applied but was concerned that the administration might bring in someone from the outside to be his boss. He was starting to dust off his résumé for his own next job search. No wonder he referred to the job in the third person.
  • I asked the same question to a fellow bowler at my Tuesday evening bowling league. About a year earlier she had started a new job as a systems engineer for a rapidly growing software company. She also used the word "they" when she spoke about her company. She related to me how unhappy she was with the way the company was run. The computer systems often failed and she constantly had to restore them. She said that "they" needed to update their computer systems to better accommodate their rapid growth.

You may be thinking that perhaps only new employees use the word "they." This is not the case. Some new employees start using "we" within the first few days of a new job. My daughter recently started working as a medical assistant at a busy orthopedic practice at a prestigious medical center outside of Boston. She very quickly started saying things like, "We are one of the best orthopedic practices in the country" and "We have 18 different world-renowned doctors who work in our office."

The other day I asked the question of a 60-year-old sales representative for a sporting goods distributor. He had been with the company for 22 years and used the word "we" repeatedly as he talked proudly about the long history of the company and its great success.

The Problem
A highly engaged and committed workforce is key to the long-term success of any organization. Employees using the word "they" instead of "we" is a red flag. It signifies a problem in the organization, or at least a problem with that employee's relationship with the organization. If employees do not embrace their work and personally identify with the culture of their organization, their motivation, relationships with coworkers, and service to customers will suffer.

What to Do
Here are a few ways to ensure new employees rapidly become "We-sayers" rather than "They-sayers."

1. Instill a sense of pride
When you onboard new employees, help them personally identify with the organization and find meaning in their work that goes beyond the compensation. Make it easy for them to feel like they are joining a winning team. Communicate your organization's history, its mission, how it contributes to the community, how it has grown, and how it has survived during challenging economic times.

2. Onboard employees in groups rather than one-by-one
If possible, try to time the hiring of new employees so that you can orient them to the organization as a class of recruits. Together, they will develop an "in-the-same-boat-consciousness" that will help bind them to each other and to your organization. For example, army soldiers often develop lifelong friendships and extreme loyalty to the army due to the powerful experiences they share together in boot camp. Similarly, many college graduates become loyal alumni and maintain long-lasting friendships with the people they meet on their freshman floor.

3. Build connections among coworkers
Friendship with coworkers is often the glue that keeps employees committed to their organization even if they may be unhappy with their work or their supervisor. Yet some organizations do their best to discourage fraternizing among coworkers. Create space for coworkers to share lunch together and talk during coffee breaks. Set up the physical work environment so that it is easy for people to interact with each other. Hold regular special events (e.g., celebrations, volleyball games, outings at local sporting events, and charity fundraisers) to enable employees to socialize.

4. Start the career development process early
Even extremely proud employees and loyal team players want to know, "What's in it for me?" From day one on the job supervisors should have conversations with employees about career growth and development.

5. Encourage employees to say "we" instead of "they"
It is a mindset that needs to be changed, and one that managers should role model. When supervisors or human resource professionals overhear employees saying "they" instead of "we" when speaking about the organization, they should tactfully correct them and ask them to please say "we."

Build employee engagement and commitment by helping employees feel "part of" your organization rather than "apart from" it. The key to accomplishing this is: build that commitment right away, during the onboarding process, and continually remind employees that when talking about the organization to customers, coworkers, or the community, the use of the word "we" signifies that they are part of a cohesive team.