Tip Sheet: For an Ownership Culture, Pass the Pronoun Test

Can you pass the pronoun test? What about your leaders, work colleagues and other employees?

The pronoun test is not a trick grammar quiz. Instead, it’s a simple diagnostic tool for assessing the health of your organization.

Former U.S. 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.

When individuals use first-person pronouns, people view themselves as active participants rather than sideline spectators.

So when you’re implementing strategic initiatives or making other major changes, you’re better prepared and positioned. You’ve got a head start for getting people involved and taking appropriate action.


However, if you hear more third-person pronouns, such as “they” and “them,” you’ve got a different situation on your hands. You not only have people sitting on the sidelines, but you also may have people who view themselves as renters, not owners.

Reich goes farther and says that “they” suggests “at least some amount of disengagement and perhaps even alienation.”

From the perspective of implementing strategic communications initiatives or making other major changes, you may have to move a mountain to reach the apartment building of renters you’re working with. Then you’ll probably need to persuade them to get off the couch and get involved.

Keep in mind that people may not be conscious of the pronouns they use. And they may not know they’re being tested—even though they may like to ace all the quizzes they take. For example, take these three incidents.

1. A panel discussion on entrepreneurship, sponsored by Northwestern University and its McCormick School of Engineering, featured a panelist who was a serial entrepreneur. More than a year ago, Twitter bought his start-up.

The individual kept referring to his employer, Twitter, as “they.”

Wonder when he’ll bolt to start another venture?

2. During a conference call with all salaried workers, the president of a consumer product company didn’t refer to the pronoun test; instead, he addressed the behavior.

As the president was closing the monthly Change Checkpoint Call, which provides updates about the company’s transformational change, he complimented one of the participants.

On this call, an individual had shared his experiences—and successes—working with teams in the new matrix organization. He used all 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?

3. During a People-to-People lecture in Cuba to a group from the World Affairs Council, an esteemed Cuban professor discussed the economic reforms the country is undergoing. Throughout the discussion, the professor kept referring to “they” instead of “we.” Does he really believe in the change and whether citizens can play a role?


Now it’s time to listen to the pronouns you, your leaders and your co-workers use.

And even more important, what actions do you take based on what you hear?

If you hear mostly first-person pronouns, celebrate. Point out the phenomena to your co-workers and leaders. Take pride in how your culture is more “we” than “me.”

Now let’s look at the opposite. What if you hear mostly third-person pronouns? Getting people to move from “them” to “us” is harder than switching from “me” to “we.”

Start by calling attention to the third-person pronouns with your colleagues and leaders. Discuss ways you can role model first-person pronoun use. Look for opportunities to talk about what it may take for people to think more like owners rather than renters.

With attention and action, you can improve your pronoun test performance. PRN


Liz Guthridge is managing director of Connect Consulting Group, a coaching and consulting firm. She can be reached at [email protected].