Working With Vs. Working For — A Musing on How Language Shapes a Company’s Culture

To “work with” or to “work for”? That is the question. Or at least, it’s the question I’ve been contemplating whenever I hear someone talk about the people that “work for” them.

I’ve concluded that the phrase is damaging, so I’ve been attempting to eliminate it from my speech. Here’s the rant.

(You might want to read to the end, where I poke holes in this argument. And feel free to poke more holes via the comment section. I intend to spark a real conversation about workplace culture, not deliver a soliloquy during which I stare into my own skull.)

The Phrase “Work for” is Antithetical to a Healthy Startup

Employees know to whom they report. They know who is in the C-Suite. They know who signs their (digital) paychecks. At best, “work for” is redundant; at worst, it reinforces the notion that people are more or less important than one another. Hierarchy.

Reinforcing hierarchy creates separation: Those in charge above those in service. Anything that feeds separation feels, to me, inconsistent with a thriving culture.

When you reinforce hierarchy, you also attract people who need hierarchy to be effective at their work. And, in a startup, where delay means death, you can’t afford to hire people that need you (or their manager) to tell them what to do.

“Work for” Overemphasizes Authority

“Working for” conveys authority and transaction. I have not served in the military but can imagine that in the terror of combat, obedience to the chain of command can bring calm. There is no time or debate. Take an order or give an order. That creates speed and predictability in the face of extraordinary pressure. But a startup isn’t combat.

I’ve already argued that transactional communication has its place in the work setting. However, I see that unnecessary reminders of the chain of command have the opposite effect. Instead of creating calm, they lead to frustration, resentment, or even contempt.

I’m not suggesting holacracy or, worse, corporate democracy. I’m supportive of chains of command: They are needed to set direction and break ties. And healthy teams fight … a lot. Someone needs to end debates and make decisions. I’m simply suggesting that we treat people as fully-formed adults and stop referencing the org chart so much.

What I’m saying is that culture follows language, which follows thought. So how do we, as founders, use language to create a culture of safety and inclusion that attracts brilliant, dynamic, curious people? Without slipping into jargon that feels empty? That is another question — and a critical one to answer.

Using “Work With” To Create a Culture Of Safety and Inclusion

In order to consciously dictate your company’s culture, you must eliminate unconscious habits. Language choice is one of those. The phrase “work for” isn’t only a relic from the days of landlords and serfs; it’s damaging to your business in the long run. The people you want on your team don’t work for others. They work for a purpose. For growth. For impact.

“Working with” conveys collaboration, partnership, and respect for all voices. Inherent in the phrase is a sense of community: Instead of a few people at the top calling all the shots, you’re a collective that overcomes challenges. Startups are hard. They don’t pay that well. They flame out. They ask impossible things from their employees. What keeps the group together is twofold: belief in the vision and belief in one another. Anything that reinforces either core tenet, benefits all. Anything that detracts is a risk.

I think that the best way to engender this sense of community is to create psychological safety because the more psychological safety a team has, the more new ideas, valuable input about the business, and honest feedback are shared. And honesty = speed… Continually reminding people of their place on the org chart feels inconsistent with the safety and, therefore, efficiency.

When You “Work With” Others, You Become a Leader People Want to Follow

Your title does not grant you the mantle of leadership. Nor does being an effective leader have anything to do with hierarchy. Anyone who feels forced to raise their title as a means of motivating others is unlikely to keep the title long. (And at the extreme, recurring use of the phrase “work for” by someone in a position of authority is a desperate attempt to exert leadership where it has not been earned.)

I believe that leadership is about enticing followership. To lead well, IMO means collecting a group of inspired humans, setting a course, sharing the rationale for that course, and then nurturing a culture such that those in your care can do their best work.

That’s not just about words. I am aware that I may be leaning too heavily on a proposal made by way of a preposition, which is never wise in any successful sentence or business. Leadership is also dependent upon how you communicate, and how you hire, how you show up to both challenges and victories.

Choose Your Semantics, Change Your Culture?

Regardless of which leads to what, I’m calling for us to stop using “work for” and start embodying “work with.” Bringing forth a vision requires shouldering the load side-by-side while speaking accurately and honestly about what that entails.

Would be curious to hear from you. Am I making too big of a deal of a phrase we all use innocently every day? Or is this phrase a relic from a more explicitly hierarchical past that has outlived its usefulness? I’ll share that the only time I plan to say “work for” is the opposite of its original intent. I might Enjoy The Work’s founder, but I know that I work for my team. Not the other way around.

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