Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Problem with Labels

One of the truly harmful, and understandable, practices in life and the workplace is labeling. We label people and things in order to simplify matters and to close off further thought.

You may be given a good label, such as “Marie is a creative person” or “Tom is a solid performer,” as the result of one memorable moment of effectiveness that was witnessed by or brought to the attention of influential people. I’ve known some executives and managers who have coasted for years on a single incident even though their effective performance was a fluke. Like some celebrities who are famous for being famous, these individuals enjoy a good reputation which is based, after a while, on having a good reputation.

Conversely, you will see people who’ve been given negative labels. They are the designated whiners and eccentrics who are permitted to remain employed but only in a parallel universe. Their chances of rehabilitation are usually remote and the odds of promotion are nil.

Aside from the questionable ethics of such caste systems, there is another problem: Sometimes, the whiner is correct. Occasionally, the eccentric is brilliant. But if the labeling is in full force, management can miss those moments.

Ask yourself how often your views of people have been shaped by positive and negative labels and then consider whether the label is accurate based on your own experience with the person. You may discover that the image doesn’t match the reality, either for good or for bad.

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