I totally get this with kids. When you have more than one, and probably even when you have just one, its very easy to say, oh, he’s the whiny one, the needy one, the cuddly one, and so on, creating a shortcut in your head for thinking about them and relating to them. Over time, those labels develop from a shortcut for thinking about relationships into a factor that determines the way we relate to our children, from what we expect from them to how we respond to their needs.
Of course, labeling is not limited to relationships we have with our kids. It also impacts the relationships we have with our colleagues. When a ’superstar’ asks for a few weeks off, we gladly and generously say yes. When a ’slacker’ makes the same request, we might grant it, but instead of thinking of it as a deserved break, it’s just one more line in the story that we have about that person. And these labels don’t always get created by accident.
Often, we work very hard to create the labels that we give to people. Management books are full of tests, personality assessments and buzzwords that we can use to label people. Meyers-Briggs, StrenghtFinders, Emotional Intelligence, etc. Even when the labels aren’t specifically good/bad but just various colors of a rainbow, these labels can be dangerous. We use StrengthsFinders at work, which I think is a great tool for getting to know your co-workers. But, over time, its easy to think of people as just their labels, and to stop expecting things from them that goes beyond their label. This can make labels as limiting as they are useful.
I recently re-took the StrengthsFinder test, and 4 of my 5 strengths had changed. At first, I was not only surprised, I was upset. I had really come to love my strengths, and was pretty unhappy to ‘lose’ some of them. That’s when I realized that I was relying too much on those labels and not enough on creating a more complex, but more nuanced, vision of myself that leaves room for me to grow and change. One of my strengths was ‘relator’ and my role at work is called ‘relationship lead.’ Which is nice synergy. Until I start thinking that maybe I want to shift roles, and my colleagues respond by saying, ‘but you have relator.’ And I know I’ve done the same things to other people.
Its easy to see how negative labels can be damaging. But we also have to remember that even descriptive, useful labels of our kids and our colleagues can prevent us from taking a close look at what people are really like, and therefore can prevent us from seeing new possibilities.