Do Labels Limit Potential?

Do you have a label maker in your workplace? Or maybe at home like I do? A small little printer with only one purpose in life: labels. My wife really loves label maker, which explains our pantry. She’s labeled every bin, which felt like overkill until I needed to distinguish between powdered sugar and all-purpose flour. A light dusting of flour on your pancakes isn’t a good as you probably imagine!

My wife isn’t alone in her love of labeling. People by nature love to label things. You have probably labeled something today — or many somethings. Not necessarily physically, but mentally. And that could be a good thing. Labels are helpful. And labels give context. A label describes what we know and what we can expect. Powdered sugar or flour. Black beans or green.

Here’s where labeling goes downhill. Unfortunately, as a leader, our propensity to label things often transfers to labeling people. We do it for the same reason as the bins in my pantry — labeling people gives us context. It helps us understand who people are and what we can expect. We label people through personality test, which is often helpful, as these types of tests give us context on how to best lead individuals individually. We label people’s roles though job descriptions and titles. Again, helpful for us and the person on the other end of the role. If we could stop the labeling there, maybe all would be fine. But we don’t. In fact, it’s as if we can’t. We love context too much to stop with personality characteristics and job descriptions.

We as leaders label everything about people that we can. The more context the better, right? But a permanent label stuck to an assumed attribute destines people’s potential contribution and growth. It causes us to not engage their full abilities and limits them from discovering their full potential. It’s so subtle:

“He seems to only care about himself. Smells like ‘selfish ambition’ to me.”

“Did you notice how much she talked in that meeting? I guess she has ‘something to prove.’”

“She didn’t arrive on time — twice. How ‘inconsiderate.’”

“He didn’t complete the project on time. I guess he’s just ‘unreliable.’”

“Was she talking about Jim? Feels a little ‘gossipy” to me.”

“Did you hear how he demanded time off. He’s so ‘entitled.’ Just like all ‘millennials.’”

You get the point. The label provides context for understanding present and future expectations, but a premature label is both unfair and often inaccurate. Yet, once something is labeled, the context is set. The flour bin will never contain powdered sugar — ever. It’s been labeled.

Here’s our challenge: As leaders, we have to avoid unfairly assigning labels to unsuspecting victims.

How, you ask?

Don’t assume their action defines their attitude.

People are going to have bad days. New employees and volunteers are not going to get it right from the beginning. When you see a behavior that typically deserves a label, resist the temptation.

Choose to believe the best.

As Andy Stanley has taught us at North Point Ministries (and millions of others at conferences and through his podcast), when a gap is created, we will either assume the worst (label them) or believe the best. Choosing to believe the best trashes the label before it’s attached to their actions.

Have a conversation.

Most labeling happens with first impressions, and first impressions aren’t always great representations. When you feel a label being created, stop the printer and have a conversation. If you’ve already labeled someone, have a conversation. If your organization has a distinct culture, give people a year to assimilate before you even begin to question their label-making actions. Finally, if a behavior is repeating, don’t allow a label to push away a difficult conversation. Conversations create connections.

Get to know people — really.

It’s amazing how much more grace we give to those we know. And the more we know about them, the more grace we’re willing to give to them. In most cases, relationships devolve labels. Get to know people. Tell them your story and ask to hear theirs. Learn who they really are before you evaluate anything they do.

That may help us moving forward, but if you’re anything like me, you’ve got some labels to remove, too. Who have you labeled? Is there a person who deserves a conversation? Are there people working with or for you who you don’t really know?

To take it a step further, who has labeled you? Are there people in your life who don’t know you, but have labeled you? Can I suggest you buy that person lunch and begin a conversation about your perceived label? Not as the aggressor or accuser, but in humility, let them know how the label makes you feel, and how you would like to reset the relationship.

Let’s start there. Then maybe we’ll be in a better position to get it right moving forward.

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