The Dangers of Labeling People in the Workplace

2858947149_58f7aba9b9photo by Chris’ Elements’

So you have a “bad” boss, eh?

So, you supervise a “bad” frontline worker?

But is it really case of being “bad?” And is using that particular word to describe a worker really a problem?

The first answer is “no.”

The second one is “yes.”

This is basic human relations that mothers and grandmothers know well. Any time a child misbehaves you separate the kid from the behavior. A bad test score doesn’t mean the child is stupid. Your son or daughter may never remember what the test was about, but I guarantee you that he/she will never forget the day you called them dumb. You better believe that the same rule is in force in the workplace.

You call somebody “bad” and that never goes away.

Let me make the obligatory statement that yes, there are truly bad — even evil minded — bosses and frontline workers, but I believe they represent little more than a blip on the workplace universe as a whole.

Most of the people we meet in the workplace aren’t bad. Some may be lazy, inefficient, uninspired, distracted, undisciplined, wasteful, and totally devoid of responsibility. Everybody, regardless of their job title, has at some point earned one or more of those descriptions.

You have. I have.

However, if you assessed the overall condition of “workdom” (my pet word, even if it’s not really a word) after searching through most job and career advice Web sites and forums, I think you’d come away convinced that the majority of bosses are mean spirited jerks who — instead of working on organizational business — spend most of their time concocting new ways to torture their employees.

Some writers try to offer a balanced view, but too often it’s a bash fest.

I’ve seen a few who overstate this issue in order to pump a book or a Webcast that will pitch something else.

Manipulating reality for personal gain is nothing new. It works, always has, and always will.

The honest truth about the general workplace today is that most people don’t hate their job. They may not be overjoyed about what they do or where they’re employed, or even who supervises them, but they don’t — repeat — don’t hate their job.

They have good days and other days, and for the most part get along with coworkers, including their boss.

Would they leave for a better situation? Yes, many would. Research consistently shows that.

For those who leave a job voluntarily — and not because they received higher compensation elsewhere — it’s true that a poor relationship with a supervisor is often the reason.

When confronted with a label, consider the labeler.

I recall a friend who took a job at a communications company, and reported that the person assigned to guide her through her introductions made a big effort to let her know who to hang out with and who to avoid; who the good people were and which ones were backstabbers. She got a complete rundown on everybody.

It reminded her of a time when she was the new girl in school and was told who it was cool to sit with at lunch.

Her initial guide wasn’t the only one who had such opinions. Over the first few weeks of her employment she picked up similar advice from other associates. The funny thing was that everyone seemed to differ a bit on just who was in which category. This is why labels should be ignored.

They are subjective.

My likes and dislikes may not match up with yours.

Reality check: Does everyone else agree with your choice of labels?

If other workers don’t see the boss as a monster, that’s when that inner voice of caution and reason should kick in and put the brakes on our ego, bringing us back to Earth. It should, but it frequently doesn’t. More often than not, ego trumps rational thinking. Our need to be “right” supercedes our need to do right.

I had one boss who in my opinion was bad, petty, mean — all of it at a world class level. My peers agreed that he had faults, but that I was way overboard in my view. I stubbornly clung to one viewpoint and verbally beat down anyone who tried to defend the guy. I proved my superior debating skills, and it wound up costing me the respect of my associates. My ego didn’t allow me to just step back and try to see it as others did.

Look first before you label

If you’ve got issues with someone, look inward before you start applying negative labels. You might ask a trusted coworker or two if they see things as you do. Ask if they feel that your attitude is unwarranted or if you have contributed to problems. Don’t judge their opinions. Just listen and accept whatever they say, even if you don’t agree.

This goes for managers as well as frontliners.

Labels are often inaccurate and unfair. Avoid them.

The ultimate goal is to solve problems, restore relationships, and to get back on track.

The flat out truth

There used to be some slack in the workplace. For the most part, it’s gone. I remember a time when it took quite a disagreement to drive a wedge between people. Today, it takes little or nothing to draw someone’s anger. It could be as simple as a look that’s misinterpreted, or a greeting that’s not “warm enough.”

People used to have “words” with each other, then more or less cooled off and it was all forgotten. We had the ability to get over things. In these slackless times, people who don’t see things as we do are clueless, fools, morons, losers and on it goes.

Managers are called idiots or worse over giving some fundamental correction or counseling.

Frontliners get the same label because they spend too much time on their Blackberry, or have an iPod in their ear while they’re pounding away on reports.

We all need to take ourselves a whole lot less seriously, and just give others a break.

Dumping negative labels and adding back even a little bit of that slack will do wonders for all of us.

Now, tell me what you think. Do you agree or disagree?

One Comment

  1. Susan Mazza says:

    So true. Labels, especially negative ones, can be damaging to both the well being of the individual and to the organization. What’s even more dangerous is the tendency to ask other people if they agree with you about your negative assessment of someone and using that as “factual evidence” for why it is “the truth”. That’s how we put people in boxes that are like straight jackets closing off all opportunity for that individual to contribute their best thinking and work to the team.

    The Pygmalion effect, referring to situations in which students perform better than other students simply because they are expected to do so, plays out over and over in organizations. We internalize the labels people put on us by the way in which people treat us. Robert Merton, a professor of sociology at Columbia University said this “a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.”

    I am struck by your comment “In these slackless times, people who don’t see things as we do are clueless, fools, morons, losers and on it goes.” This is a sure recipe for failure, yet I think the instinct to think that way is based in survival.

    Perhaps the antidote to the intolerance you point to is to embrace the notion that our assessments are not “the truth” about someone no matter how many people agree with us. In my work with organizations I have seen countless people change dramatically. The question is who changed more – the “bad” worker or their colleagues/boss. The answer is usually both.

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