“I am Firm; You are Obstinate; He is a Pig-headed Fool.” The Way We Sometimes See ‘Me’​ and ‘Thee’​ Differently at Work (and Elsewhere).

Image from Omega Z Advisors

“I have reconsidered the matter; you have changed your mind; he has gone back on his word.” — Bertrand Russell

Isn’t it interesting how we can see the very same behaviors far differently depending on whether we are focusing on ourselves vs. others when we make a judgment about those behaviors? The “I-You-He” statements noted above and others like them are witty in a sense but also speak to the way many (most?) of us see our own behaviors as being more benevolent and defensible than those of others.

It was philosopher Bertrand Russell who voiced the above two examples of this phenomenon back in a 1948 BBC broadcast and consequently, it has become known as “Russell’s Conjugation” because the format, in a clever way, mimics a grammatical conjugation of an irregular verb. It’s also known as “emotive conjugation” because of the feelings that are the underpinnings of seeing the same actions quite differently and in the context of self vs. others.

There have been variations of this theme that predate Russell’s articulation of it on the BBC, such as the old maxim which suggests that whether someone is considered to be a “freedom fighter” or a “terrorist” depends on who is writing the history. The actions, the violence, the potential collateral damage might be the same, but the words obviously mean very different things based on the viewpoint and biases of the observer.

It’s often difficult to separate the story from the storyteller.

Comedian George Carlin once addressed a similar perceptual blurring of the lines between “me and thee” with his classic gag: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

And in the political world, especially in an election year, we encounter these rhetorical differentiators regularly. My party proposes a “stimulus package” bill, but I consider your party’s similar bill to be “reckless spending.” My party supports a tax plan that is “fair and equitable” but I see you and your party’s plan as a “soak-the-rich scheme.” All it takes is a shift of perspective and a slight leap of inference.

This “me and thee” plays out in the workplace when we create opinions — often based on assumptions — about the intentions and impact of others: other people, other groups, other departments, etc. For instance, a workplace “conjugation” might be: I am detail-oriented; You are a perfectionist; He gets lost in the weeds. The behaviors are similar or the same but there is a different framing of the intention and impact.

I’ve created some other workplace examples of this emotive conjugation, which by the way, is technically not considered to be a cognitive bias but instead is a form of fallacy. Do you recognize any of these in your own thoughts and perceptions of self and others?

  • I am self-confident; You have a high opinion of yourself; He is arrogant.

I think you’ll agree those are very different and I think amusing ways of describing what are essentially the same behaviors or traits. Amusing — at least to me — because of how the creative use of language can either sanctify or demonize.

As you read the list, perhaps upon honest reflection you recognized your own complicity in one or more of the examples. I know I’ve been guilty of a couple of those emotive conjugations over the course of my career.

More Conjugation Examples

Here are some additional conjugations I’ve crafted for your consideration.

  • I’m even-keeled; You are laid back; He is aloof.

In truth, we are often more generous when viewing our own behaviors than when we judge others’ behaviors. Anais Nin, an early 20th-century French novelist, once said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.The ego component of self-perception can act as a prism instead of a lens, distorting and coloring what we perceive.

Another useful way to think about the differences between the positive “me” and pejorative “thee” is through the well-known notion of what often happens when we dial up our personal strengths to extreme levels. It’s commonly held that when positive behaviors or personality factors are overused or used in excess, they can become weaknesses or limiters to success. The positive trait of being “action-oriented,” for example, is usually seen as a career enabler, while overusing that strength — “acting impulsively” — is usually seen as a career limiter or even as a derailer.

In looking at the above examples of I-You-He, the “I” behaviors/traits are almost universally thought of as strengths, while the “He” behaviors/traits are seen by most as weaknesses or derailers. In the workplace, those sometimes-flawed perceptions of others can have a bearing on managers who evaluate employees in performance reviews or who have conversations with other leaders about promotions or leadership potential. Is Cindy seen as someone who is action-oriented or is she seen as someone who acts impulsively?

Thus, promotions and careers can sometimes be boosted or blocked based on whether Cindy’s behaviors are perceived as being like me or being like thee.

Part of the reason we sometimes see others less charitably than how we see ourselves is that we have access — imperfect as it is — to understanding the motives for our behaviors. But we can’t see the motives of others, only outward behaviors.

We All Rationalize Some Behaviors…

I’ve known many leaders over the years whom I consider to be “micro-managers” but I cannot recall a single one of them who would describe themselves that way. They would have what they considered to be good reasons for having to manage, um, “closely.” Examples of their rationale would be:

  • “I’ve got some new or inept people on the team I manage so I have to make many day-to-day decisions myself. I’m not in a position to delegate much of anything.”

An observer or colleague in another department who only sees or hears about the leader’s behaviors and does not know the supposed rationale behind those behaviors would likely consider them to be micro-managing behaviors even though the manager in question would not describe themself in that way.

Is there, then, a discernible, objective way to understand colleagues’/managers’ behaviors when we consider their actions from afar? Or is it more like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where we see only the shadows of reality which are open to our own interpretation of what we believe to be true, based on our own imperfect perceptions of reality?

Hence, unexamined motives or intentions behind the behaviors of others are invisible to us. And those assumptions and speculations about what those motives/intentions are could be very wrong. And so, when I show up as upbeat and optimistic, I’m exhibiting positivity, but when you do that, I often suspect it’s because you are wearing your rose-colored glasses.

Groups can also fall into the me-and-thee trap — it doesn’t just occur at the individual level. It can create a negative stereotype of another group or department that creates bad feelings and can get in the way of collaboration. And results. Consider this We-They example from the perspective of the “we” department:

  • We“Because our service department has to allocate scarce resources wisely, we have to carefully prioritize the many requests we get. As a result, we sometimes have to say no.”

Perhaps — just perhaps — the IT department has even more of the same resource constraints and its staff members are working very hard, but their lack of responsiveness is perceived harshly by some people in their user base. Failure to look honestly into the mirror as well as the failure to give the other department the benefit of the doubt are both in play here.

What Can You Do About The Emotive Conjugation Phenomenon?

This “me and thee” dynamic, then, is not just a Seinfeldish “interesting but trivial” phenomenon, it’s a thing. It has consequences. And now that you know what it is and have a language for it, you can use its smug logic to create new self-insights and/or adopt countermeasures to avoid its potential pitfalls.

An example of a pitfall: We could have a personal blind spot based on a mismatch of how we view ourselves vs. how others see us. That is, we might be the negative “they” in others’ perceptions, whereas we see ourselves favorably as the “I.” I might consider myself prudent but you — and others — might see me as risk averse. And if I don’t know about that perception of me by you and others it’s a blind spot for me and I’m likely to continue to act in a way that’s seen negatively by others. There is no upside to that for me.

And for a manager, the “me and thee” mismatch can contribute to poor decisions about the performance and potential of team members. It can also foster “we-they” dynamics between departments which have an adverse impact on the success of the enterprise.

Action Items

Here, then, are some action ideas to leverage your insights about emotive conjugation:

  • Know thyself. It’s the foundational principle of Emotional Intelligence. Participate in 360-type activities; ask some trusted others for their insights about some of your behaviors you suspect might be seen differently by them vs. by you. Example of some dialogue: “Bob — You know I’m a careful and prudent manager and it generally works for me and for the department. But I also know I could potentially play it too safe and fall into the trap of being risk-averse. Can you think of a time or two in the last 6 months when maybe I’ve been too cautious in that way?”

In sum, I find this concept of Emotive (or Russell’s) Conjugation to be both interesting and insightful, and this piece was written in the spirit of being thought-provoking. And of course, in my view: I am thought-provoking; You can be a rabble-rouser; He is flat-out pugnacious!

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant, and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote many thought leadership pieces for DDI when he was there. He also wrote a business column for 12 years. His recent commentaries — including many about leading during the COVID pandemic — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

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Mike Hoban

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.