POINT OF THE POST...
We all label things to better understand and categorize them. We do this with people, too. As leaders, the labels we place on others can limit them and our organizations.
How have you labeled the people around you?
And before you suggest to yourself, “I don’t label people,” we all do it. Our brains are wired to label.
I’ve been labeled by others my life. And I’ve labeled others my entire life.
I recently was labeled in a Twitter reply.
I enjoy political banter. I’m fascinated by the sociology of politics. And I’m typically disgusted by politicians.
After President Biden’s State of the Union address and the GOP rebuttal, I tweeted something.
Before I show you what I said AND one response I received, can I quickly ask: What labels are you already mentally placing on me?
Perhaps none. Or at least nothing new. You may have already labeled me. Some will label me “liberal” because I used the term “President” Biden, not “Brandon” or another nickname. It’s so easy to label because it helps our brain make sense of the world.
Why we label…
Psychologically, we label what we don’t understand to help us compartmentalize. Labels help us manage uncertainty. Think of it like an imperfect mental shortcut. We do this unconsciously. Our labels are all constructed from our presuppositions, biases, and stereotypes. By labeling, we can add the unknown person in front of us to a compartment where we’ve placed other people of supposed similarity.
This doesn’t make you a lousy leader or a below-average person. It just means you’re human. Our brains seek clarity, so giving people a label helps us understand what we don’t yet understand.
The problem is…
Of course, there’s a massive inherent problem with our labeling. Because we label what we still need to fully understand, we may accidentally and inaccurately mislabel. We often do. When we meet a person with a big personality, we might label them like the other people in our life that seem like them. When we meet a person of a different race, we tag them from our previous experiences with that race. When we read a tweet, we label them based on their language compared to others we’ve seen use similar language.
Labels allow us to make sense of those around us. Yet mislabeling provides counterfeit clarity.
I mentioned a tweet that caused a person to label me.
After President Biden’s SOTU address, the GOP offered up their rebuttal. And in typical fashion, the opposing party used predetermined talking points to “label” democrats and Biden. President Biden also didn’t hold labels back when talking about the Republicans.
As I perused the insanity of social media, I saw some news about Senator Mitt Romney. Before the speech, he apparently gave a fellow republican an earful. This led me to read more, leading to his non-official rebuttal. I loved what he said. Mainly because it wasn’t full of misrepresentations. He was honest, fair, and behaved like an adult. It was refreshing.
So I tweeted… and was immediately labeled:
I’m not going to ask you as a leader to stop labeling. You can’t. Your brain does it unconsciously. But, it’s worth considering the labels you’ve given to others – especially those following you and working with you.
5 Tips for Better Labeling…
When we label people prematurely, we harm their leadership progress, career, and joy.
Ideally, we could stop labeling in totality, but that’s impossible. It’s too subconscious. We can do something, though.
When we interact with a new person, interview people for an open position, or interact with someone in our congregation or customer base, here are a few tips to better use our internal label maker:
1. Use “PENDING” as your first label.
As I said, we can’t not label. So rather than fight our brain, let’s use an interim label: “PENDING.”
By intentionally refusing to pigeonhole a person with a potentially inaccurate label, we can label them with a question mark. Sure, we know people like them, and we’ve labeled people like them before, but what if the person we just met isn’t like those other people?
Rather than mislabel or fight to not label, let’s assign a temporary tag.
2. Ask people how they would label themselves.
Rather than label people from what we initially see, what if we asked people how they see themselves?
Because we are hard-wired to label, we can’t easily resist the temptation. Rather than create our own label, why not ask the person how they label themselves.
I’ve been labeled many things by many people (not including the internet trolls and my “closet democrat” friend. I tend to be confident. Not confident that I’m better than others, but optimistic that, if given the time, I can find a way forward. Many people in my past quickly labeled my confidence as arrogance. I’m pretty focused, so I’ve been labeled mean because I walked too fast past someone on the way to get something done.
But if these labelers had asked me first, I would have told them I love people (I was a pastor for over 15 years) and love taking on challenges.
3. Don’t superglue your labels.
Labels can hamper and restrict progress. As leaders, we can help people grow by making their current label temporary and removable. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with made my label malleable. I sometimes got this wrong, but I tried to do the same for those who worked with and for me. Some of the best leaders on my previous staff team could have easily been labeled out of progress had I superglued their label based on initial interactions.
4. Ask people to intentionally change their labels.
This may seem odd, but I’ve found it healthy to ask people how they feel they are perceived and what they believe is more accurate. This conversation allows people to consider how they are currently viewed and how they would like to be viewed based on who they actually are.
This conversation can open the door to so much growth. For one, it allows people to process how and why they carry an existing label. Next, it will enable them to express what label they believe is fair and unfair. Lastly, it gives you, as their leader, a chance to reflect to them how and why they carry a label.
5. Use personality profiles the right way
I’m a fan of profiles. Yet I hate how they can create labels. For instance, I’m an Enneagram 8, ENTJ, Driver/Director, Invention and Discernment Genius, and red temperament.
In isolation, these profiles help me better understand myself and can help others better understand me. The problem is we tend to use these profiles to label others. “I know an 8, so you must be just like…” Or, “Since you’re an ENTJ, that means you are just like…”
Again, we label others to understand others. A profile helps us understand, but we need to resist pigeonholing people.
The most dangerous part of labeling others is how it may limit them. We tend to live up to our labels. I did that for a long time in my early North Point days.
Leading people well means understanding how to best treat them, guide them, and support them individually. You may feel that label is helping, but in reality, it’s doing more harm.