The Pitfalls of Labeling

communication conflict impact workplace culture Nov 07, 2023
The Pitfalls of Labeling

Labels play a pivotal role in our daily lives, simplifying the way we identify things. The clearer the label, the better – a " Spring Water", “Diet Coke”, or “Carrot Juice” label doesn't leave much room for confusion. However, in both professional and personal relationships, labels often fall short in conveying the whole story. Spring water might not actually be spring-sourced, Diet Coke may be calorie-free but far from healthy, and your carrot juice might surprisingly contain more apple juice than carrots.

In our interactions, it's tempting to label people—nice, cool, jerk, challenging, aggressive, lazy, annoying, or even sexist—based on our experiences. But these labels hardly encompass the full story. It's imperative that, before labeling someone, we evaluate the health of our relationship and craft strategies to shift from rigid labels to healthy relationships. Here are two crucial considerations for cultivating better relationship strategies.

Understanding Behavior

I once heard a male colleague dub a female coworker as "aggressive." Curious about his interpretation of the word, I discovered his grievance was about her assertiveness in articulating her ideas. This behavior apparently hurt his feelings and ego. At that point in my career, I didn't have much guidance to offer, but this incident left a lasting impression. It made me wonder why he never considered himself aggressive despite behaving in a similar fashion, and why he wasn't labeled as such by others.

By probing deeper into her behavior, I started questioning my own conduct when interacting with her. Was I inadvertently shutting her down, talking over her, or not giving her a chance to express herself? This brings us to the next point—assessing the role we play in that behavior.

Your Role in the Behavior

Unfortunately, my male colleague never received the assistance he required to collaborate effectively with his female counterpart. However, I became more aware of my behavior when engaging with her. Although I didn't know how to assist him, I actively promoted openness in group settings, encouraged contributions from everyone, and offered support for good ideas. I may have been labeled in various ways, but these efforts helped mitigate the situation.

The Perils of Labeling

Labeling individuals or groups presents several problems. It often closes the door on collaboration, resulting in missed opportunities. Labels can lead to detrimental practices such as gossip, the formation of cliques, and even sabotage, all of which affect productivity and can eventually result in talent loss.

Many managers and leaders would rather not deal with dysfunctional employees or colleagues. I was once in the same boat, but I came to realize that managing dysfunction is a skill, just like any other part of my job. When lacking the skill to build relationships, stress and anxiety tend to surge. Without the right skills, attempting to bring two or more people together to work through their issues, or dealing with someone labeled as lazy, stupid, or difficult, can feel like a futile endeavor. Being unskilled in managing relationships may lead to playing favorites, passive-aggressiveness, or whatever our default response to conflict might be. However, once we embrace the idea of developing these skills, our perspective changes, and we become more confident in building relationships.

Crafting Effective Strategies

The perils that labels introduce to the workplace underscore the need for appropriate strategies. It's much simpler to extinguish a small campfire than a raging forest fire.

Referring back to my earlier example, defining behavior and assessing my contribution to it laid the foundation for creating strategies to foster better relationships. Understanding the similarities in behavior between our female colleague and my male coworker, I adapted my behavior to ensure a more thoughtful approach in group settings. I worked to create an environment where everyone had the opportunity to contribute, diminishing the need for dominance or assertiveness.

Labels are a symptom of our deficiency in relationship-building skills. While they may appear harmless, their consequences in the workplace can be grave. Being transparent about behavior and our own contributions can help us devise the right strategies to transition from unproductive labels to productive relationships.

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