1. Schaffner, Marilyn PhD, RN, CGRN, Department Editor

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Have you ever asked a question regarding the source of a situation when the explanation includes everyone else ("they") and eliminates the person with whom you are talking? It reminds me of the scene from The Wizard of Oz when the scarecrow points both ways when Dorothy asked, "Which way do we go?" This shifting of blame is what Quint Studer calls "we/theyism" (Studer, 2008). It is about making oneself look better at the expense of another. This behavior is destructive and divisive (Studer, 2008). At times, leaders need to be reminded that "they" is "we" and "we" are "them."


Kvarnstrom and Cedersund (2006) completed a study to explore how members of multiprofessional healthcare teams talk about their teams, particularly focusing on the uses of the pronouns "we," "they," and "I." They noted that the construction of "we" by healthcare teams contains discursive patterns of knowledge synergy and trusting support. In group interviews, the use of "we" meant both "'we' the profession" and "'we' the team." The use of "we" creates the bridge between professions (Kvarnstrom & Cedersund, 2006).


"We/theyism" deconstructs the bridge between managers and senior leaders. How does this "we/they" phenomenon manifest itself? The "we/they" phenomenon is obvious when staff members give their manager an overall satisfaction rating on a staff satisfaction survey that is a much higher rating than that given by senior leadership. This may be the first indication to the manager that his or her area of responsibility exemplifies a "we/they" phenomenon. The first step to shifting this phenomenon is to highlight the difference in scores and discuss the possible reasons for variation with the manager.


Listen to the manager for clues of use of "they" instead of "we" and provide coaching at each moment. For example, the organization has made a decision to move from a segregating time off arrangement to a "paid time off" (PTO) arrangement that combines sick, vacation, and holidays. The manager may be explaining the new PTO policy to staff and may remark, "This is being dictated by the corporate leaders." Before implementing and communicating a new policy, provide your leaders key phrases that will foil any we/they remarks. Eliminating the we/they from the above statement could modify it to, "As you know, we have been investigating methods to retain staff and as such, we are implementing a new PTO policy that provides you with a more flexible arrangement and gives each employee a set amount of days off." The first statement thwarts employee indignation toward the manager. The second statement illustrates the bridge between managers and corporate leaders.


Another indication of a "we/they" phenomenon that is just as divisive is shifting decision making to the "higher-ups." It is evident in verbal or written e-mail statements such as, "I will defer to the chief executive officer or the chief nursing executive (CNE) to make the decision." This tactic takes the pressure off the manager and places it on the senior leader. Encourage your managers to speak to you about the situation so together you can agree on a decision, and then the resolution can be presented as a unified decision.


Studer (2008) says that there are two types of corporate cultures: those divided by blame and finger-pointing and those united by teamwork and shared responsibility. Implement methods to ensure that the "they" talk is shifted to "we" talk in your organization. Eliminating "we/theyism" will result in a healthier organization.




Kvarnstrom, S., & Cedersund, E. (2006). Discursive patterns in multiprofessional healthcare teams. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 53(2), 244-252. [Context Link]


Studer, Q. (2008). Manage up to improve performance: Cultural shift to a positive workplace is possible. Healthcare Registration, 17(4), 7-9. [Context Link]