George Richardson

Always Use We, Except When We Shouldn’t

It’s good to be blameless. Insisting on assigning blame can cause people needless distress as well as incentivize hiding problems in the future. Instead, you can take responsibility as a team, building trust and improving communication. The switch is easy to make, just a simple change of pronouns. Instead of “you merged that code that broke production”, it’s “we merged that code that broke production”. Done. How very evolved of you. You are blameless now.

A woman points at the sun above a mountain.
Ultimately, the sun is to blame for enabling life on earth. (unsplash/Austin Neill)

Unfortunately, humans are very good at pattern matching, so it doesn’t take long before people start to realise when someone says “we” they really mean “not me” with a wink towards the person responsible. You see, when we only use “we” when talking about problems, we end up adding baggage to the word. How do we solve that problem? We use “we” everywhere, all the time. When taking responsibility as a team, we shouldn’t just democratize the bad, while keeping the good for ourselves. “I” didn’t implement that incredible new feature, “we” did. “You” shouldn’t make these changes to this pull request, “we” should. How very evolved we are. We are blameless now.

The concept can be taken a step further. Why not just remove all subject pronouns? There can be no blame without a subject, just a series of facts. Technical systems are the product of larger human-centric systems, and both can be talked about in the same way. “We” didn’t run a bad SQL query, instead a bad SQL query was run. “We” didn’t reduce response times by 50%, that just happened. Be one with the system. The system is evolved. There can be no blame.

…but it doesn’t read well, does it? There is a time and a place for going full robot. It’s useful during incidents, removing emotion from the equation, less useful when talking about our day-to-day work. Pronouns exist for a reason. Furthermore, it’s nice to revel in a victory as a team. “We increased sales 5%! Good job!” Sometimes people need motiviating, and that’s hard to do without calling on individuals. “You really stepped up today! Thanks, Alex!”. Share responsibility, but don’t forget we are all humans, even you.