A Grammar Check: Are Nouns Messing With Your Leadership?

On a flight to Iowa last week, I ended up in a brief conversation with my seatmate about presidential caucuses. I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to experience one firsthand and was excited to hear she had attended many times. (Note: this is not a political post!)

In listening to her stories, I noticed that she didn’t describe Republicans and Democrats. Instead, she said things like “the Republican side” and the “Democratic party.” She used descriptions like this several times in the span of a three-minute conversation as we were landing. The English major in me took notice.

Rather than describing these groups categorically by their usual nouns, her use of adjectives felt different to me. It was so unlike what I hear on the news in my DC hometown.


“If you reduce complex individuals to one thing you’ll go through life clueless about the world around you.” – David Brooks

The conversation brought to mind this article that New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote following the election last November.

Brooks cautions that when we categorize people by a single attribute, we stop looking at them as individuals. We stop being curious about what is unique about them and what else shapes their perspective.

While the examples of my plane conversation and of the Brooks article are both related to politics, my goal here is not to raise a political debate. (Really.) Both did prompt me to wonder: where does this “group by noun” thinking show up in our organizations?

I began thinking about possible categorizations:

  • By function or org chart – Sales, HR, Legal, the Execs, the Business Units
  • By education or trade – the engineers, accountants, architects, developers
  • By generation – Millennial, Baby Boomer, Gen-Xer

One clear way to see where this is happening are the places you notice or experience “us versus them” thinking.

One team I worked with last year – a “business unit” – was struggling with a particular “corporate function” in their company. In listening to them express their frustrations, I noted the “us versus them” thinking. We talked about how to shift perspective on this: what would help them engage differently?

Through a series of questions and an activity, we shifted into a conversation about 1:1 relationships. Who on this team might approach someone on the other team? Things opened up. There was conversation about asking questions, about understanding the other side’s perspective. It became a dialogue of curiosity and possibility.

These openings aren’t possible unless people are willing to first acknowledge the noun boxes they’ve created.

“Vision is the ability to see potential in what others overlook.” – Rick Warren

To me, it is incumbent upon all of us – and leaders in particular – not to fall into the trap of categorically categorizing those we work with. Our brains seek patterns; it helps us simplify and digest information. Yet there is such risk in seeing people only through the lens of a single noun.

When we stop looking at people as individuals, we open up numerous cans of leadership worms as it relates to everything from who we promote to how we motivate people to how well (if at all) we can work in teams. None of us can be understood through a single lens.

What are the nouns you use in your organization that might be getting in your way?

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