It’s the same old story. Something is not quite right, like a dirty dish being left out on the bench. Somebody put it there (or the more fun alternative of a troublesome, yet charming, magical elf) but no one is owning up to it. Why would you? When to do so would be to make yourself the focus of scorn and humiliation. This is an example of negative team culture and the key to unlocking it is in the language.
“Look at this! Somebody has left this dirty dish on the bench! “I can’t believe this! I’m going to have to wash it now! Why didn’t they just put it in the dishwasher! Who does this dish belong to?! Was it you!? Was it nobody!? I don’t believe this!”
The message? Something has gone wrong and it has nothing to do with me. It is not my fault. I am tidying up someone else’s mess and and I am resentful as heck about it! What does this signal about team culture? To me, this is symptomatic of a negative team culture or perhaps more specifically no team culture at all. It jumps out most clearly through the words “I””somebody” “they” “you” “nobody”. These are words that isolate, that separate. These are words that put distance between the person who is speaking and the group. These words show that really, the group is made up of individuals putting themselves first and putting down others to do it. It feels like an unsafe work environment. It feels like it’s a dog eat dog world (and sometimes it is, life’s like that)… But consider this. What if we changed the language. Not the message, but the language used to deliver the message. How might that change things?
“Hey everyone, it looks like we slipped up and left a dirty dish on the bench. Accidents happen. Can we please be a bit more careful in the future?”
The difference: I don’t do anything, we do everything, because we are a team. So if somehow a dirty dish gets left on the bench, it is not one person’s responsibility, or one person’s mistake. It is everyone’s responsibility, because it is everyone’s kitchen and everyone’s dishes in everyone’s dishwasher. That is what being in a team means. Us not I! We not me! How would that feel? A bit safer? Maybe this is a place where you can be yourself, faults and all? Maybe this is a place where people work together to create something awesome? (Also, notice how much nicer we are when we are including ourselves in the statement, not just some abstract “someone”).
We can’t prevent accidents or mistakes from happening, we can’t even stop people from being thoughtless idiots some of the time. It is part of being human. What we can do is choose what side we are on. Am I by myself, competing with my co-teachers? Or am I part of a team, for better or worse, sharing in the mistakes and the triumphs? Everyone has made this choice subconsciously or consciously and it is shown in the language we use. Try listening to yourself while you speak, you may get a surprise. Maybe a pleasent surprise (you team player you!) In any case, another great part about being human is the ability to change your mind. It’s awesome. Try it sometime.
So… how is this helpful? You’re a bit more aware of language, but what does that matter if it everyone else is in the “I” boat? This is the tricky part and the only answer I have come up with in my 10+ years of teaching (still a baby) is to role model. We know that teachers influence teachers. Be the positive influence. Take it one day at a time and across time you will notice a difference. Sorry if you were looking for a quick fix.
I believe in the power of language to shape our thoughts and shape our lived realities. Maybe just shifting that one word of your vocabulary from “I” to “We” could make all the difference. You never know until you try.