How Mislabeling Your Employees Can Be Unhealthy for Your Organization

Kat Bourgeois
Posted: June 22, 2016

Companies should encourage employees to resist the urge to label others, not only in their age, race, and gender, but also in their personality traits or capabilities.  Employees, multi-faceted human beings, are often defined as having a single characteristic. We fail to see that a fellow employee can be both witty AND focused or serious AND spontaneous. A team member suggests a radical new idea and is labeled impractical. The IT team is inflexible. The boss is unimaginative.

Even positive labels can be unhealthy because they are limiting. An employee, labeled as “the creative person on the team”, for instance, may be excluded for consideration for a long-term mundane, but career-advancing, assignment. Leaders who excel at recognizing employee strengths can focus so narrowly on those strengths that they fail to nurture or provide opportunities for team members to showcase other talents.

It’s challenging to train employees to be open-minded.  It requires a change of perspective. The first step is to realize how quickly people take on the characteristics assigned to them by others. Here is a labeling exercise that is simple to execute and takes less than 30 minutes. More importantly, it demonstrates the dynamics of labeling others and leads to a lively discussion on the issue.

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The “Labeling” Activity

Preparation:

Create a tent card with a separate label for each participant. Include both “positive” and “negative” personality traits or characteristics.

Your list might include:

  • Leader
  • Clown
  • Shy
  • Competent
  • Unorganized
  • Creative
  • Smart
  • Incompetent
  • Opinionated
  • Bully

Place the tent cards in front of each participant facing outward. The participants will see what is written on their colleagues’ tent cards, but not on their own.

Facilitation:

Announce that the participants are taking a weekend camping trip and have fifteen minutes to determine the twenty items they are allowed to bring.

Explain that the descriptions on their colleagues’ tent cards have been widely accepted by the group as characteristic of that person. Instruct the participants to begin. Observe their discussion. Call time after fifteen minutes.

Debrief the Activity:

Note: Typically you will observe that the participants, regardless of their true personality,will quickly begin to take on the characteristics of the label on their tent card in response to the actions of the other team members. For instance, because the team members will laugh at whatever the “clown” says, the “clown” will seek to become funnier.  The “leader” will assume the role because the group will look to him or her to do so. The “incompetent” participant may shut down completely because they are ignored.

Ask:

(Before removing turning over tent cards) What was your label? What led you to assume you had been labeled this way?

(After) How did your label impact your contribution to the effort?

Reflecting on your work meetings, how do you think that labeling others impacts your team’s efforts?

In failing to call on all of the talents of each employee, businesses fail to fully realize the contribution each employee could make toward company objectives. Insights from this activity may help your team reduce their labeling of others and even of themselves!


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