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There is no ‘they’

I vaguely recall the deluge of information and the excitement during my first days at Google, but I don’t remember any details. Except for one event—that one will be imprinted in my memory forever.

An older fellow had flown from the US to Zurich, and everyone was eager to talk to him. A flurry of meetings took place, and I quickly found out that he was the VP of Engineering of our organization. I was invited to one of the sessions, but it was somewhat odd—the VP was standing in front of a whiteboard, and everyone else in the room was new to Google or the organization. It was going to be a lecture.

The VP gave us an overview of the business, what we’re trying to achieve, and how our work fits into a bigger picture. Very helpful and kind of him to use his limited time in this way. He asked us about how we work and if there are any roadblocks. One engineer volunteered, “There is this team, and it’s difficult to work with them. They always do [X], and they don’t do [Y].”

It went for a while, and the VP eventually stepped in, “I hear you using ‘they’ a lot. Who are ‘they’?”

The engineer paused, not expecting the question, and fumbled, “Well … you know, this other team.”

The VP was now speaking to the whole room, “There is no ‘they,’ there are only individuals, and we’re all part of the same company. We have an internal directory, so you can always look up the person responsible for a particular project or effort. You can see the person’s name and photo, and you can reach out directly to try to resolve a problem.”

His statement is powerful because it addresses one of the fundamental human traits of dividing people into in-group and out-group members. Big distributed global companies are a perfect environment for creating silos and othering, and one needs to keep constant vigilance around relationships, collaboration, and communication.

For me, it was a lesson with life-long benefits, and I kept the habit to this day. Every time I talk to someone at the company and they use a pronoun for a person outside of my immediate group, I immediately ask for a name so I can look up that person. At that moment, the person becomes a real individual I can talk to or work with, not a part of the gray, inert, and scary ‘they.’

This article is a part of my “lessons from the corporate world” series. If you’re curious, take a look at the intro on how it started and the list of all articles.


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