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Labels

I was thinking about labels the other day and how frequently and readily they seem to get thrown around these days, especially in light of recent events on the world stage: terrorist, freedom-fighter, Islamophobe… The list is endless.

Labelling is something that we do naturally as a way of creating simplicity out of the world around us. If we can put things - and people - into boxes, we can use our much faster sub-conscious mental processes for dealing with events. Rather than having to follow the arduous and time-consuming process of assessing each situation or individual from scratch, we can just read the label on the box apply the ‘formula’ that we store in our mental habits to its contents. (As explanations of neurological activity go, this is of course a gross simplification – a point I shall come back to shortly.)

Using labels (or their close relative, stereotypes) is an effective and efficient way of reducing complexity and moving quickly – something that is increasingly demanded of us. So, if this is a mechanism that evolved to help us cope with more complexity and to be more efficient and effective, how does it play out in the workplace? After all, where in our lives places a greater premium on speed, efficiency and an ability to cope with complexity?

To answer the question – and maybe to illustrate the point that simplification isn’t the same thing as clarification – here are three interesting situations.

Departments

I was working with the senior management team of an IT function recently, and we were exploring the relationships they had with the rest of the business. Interestingly – well, for me - they were looking at the relationships between their function and other functions, rather than the relationships that they had as individuals with other individuals in the organisation.

Their purpose in doing the exercise was to look at how they could influence the rest of the organisation. Once they started looking at who they knew and the relationships they had with those individuals, the mental diagram they were drawing was a much messier one. But it was also one that opened up a great deal of rich debate, and which revealed opportunities for them to start to make some of changes they wanted to see actually happen.

Me, We, Us

Just like organisation charts and office layouts, labels also start to create tribes. People start to be ‘in’ or ‘out’. We end up thinking about ‘us and them’ and not about ‘we’ or ‘us’. Companies disintegrate into groups of people, each acting in their own self-interests. This can often be seen in the NHS, for example, where there are tensions and perceived (and actual) power imbalances between the various tribes of nurses, doctors, surgeons, porters, management, and so on… And these tensions are frequently to the detriment of the wider system: not just the hospital or trust, but sometimes the patient too.

I was talking recently to a senior HR person in a large computing company who was telling me about the company’s Employee Value Proposition. I listened as he talked about what ‘we’ were offering and how ‘they’ were reacting. As part of the conversation, he drew a diagram to illustrate some of what was going on in the business.

When he’d finished, we stood back and talked about it, about the insights it gave and the questions it raised, one of which turned out to be “why was the EVP described in terms of we and they?” Surely it should be for the benefit of everyone, all together. There is no we and they: there is only the business, and that is made up of the employees. They are one and the same - well, almost, the employees are flesh and blood individuals: ‘the business’ is an abstract noun – a label. And it’s how the flesh and blood individuals treat each other, regardless of any hierarchical labels, that aligns people and drives engagement.

Talent

There is a war for talent you know. You need to identify what talent you need, attract it or build it and then retain it. But what do we mean by talent? Perhaps at the simplest level, we mean the ability to do better than others. Or a natural skill or flair (although the word natural might need what we call scare quotes.) Or perhaps we mean someone with a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught.

The CIPD defines it as those individuals who can make a difference to organisational performance either through their immediate contribution or, in the longer-term, by demonstrating the highest levels of potential.

For me, both of those definitions are flawed. The first suggests you should be looking for an effortless saviour who can actually walk on water, or successfully lead a large complex organisation without being taught and with little effort. And isn’t the latter actually everyone? Doesn’t everyone make a difference to organisational performance through their immediate contribution?

But there’s another reason beyond its widespread use that this label is more insidious than many, and that’s the impact the label has on the person who gets given it. In her book Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential, Carol Dweck looks at the impact the talent label actually has. Among her many findings here are two interesting things she found.

The first is that it creates an expectation of automatic success, that somehow that person should be able to perform with being taught or learning. So the individual expects to know and to be able to do almost anything, which either leads to a loss of effort and an inability to accept responsibility for failure – because doing so would mean that they did need to learn. Anything that goes wrong therefore is someone else’s fault.

The other is that they can develop a fear of failure: because they ‘know’ they are a talent, they know they have to be able to succeed. And therefore they can’t fail – at anything. And the only way to ensure that is to not try. So they start to choose the easier option all the time. Better to be safe than fail.

In short being labelled as ‘talent’ creates a fixed mindset that prevents learning and growth – the very thing that most talent programmes are desperately trying to achieve. So maybe it’s time to stop pushing ‘talent’ programmes; or at least labelling people that way?

So…

Next time you start referring to someone by their label rather than thinking of them as an individual human being, ask yourself two questions: is this the most constructive or helpful way to think about them, and is it the best way to work with them? If not, dump the label!

It’s not complicated – it’s hard… understand the difference!

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