Some labels are on the inside where they belong, like a piece of clothing - while others are in plain sight with little chance to be missed - like the ingredients on a can. Then there are those that are invisible to the eye but have the greatest impact of all...workplace labels.
No one asks, or wants to be labeled but unfortunately, we are all predisposed to this experience at an early age. For those lucky few who never were labeled anything - I marvel at your ability to live a life free of this experience, and for the millions of others who weren't as lucky - I feel your pain. Being labeled sucks and it can like the stink of skunk that just won't go away.
Labels follow us around like our shadow - sometimes clearly visible while other times completely hidden. Worst of all, they stay with us right through adulthood and yes...right into the workplace.
In order to understand just how labeling works, we must first breakdown the following:
- Why it's dangerous to label people
- Common stereotypes in the workplace
- Why "perception is reality" and what you can do about it
The Danger Of Labeling Others
As sophisticated as we "can be" as human beings, we are also horribly wired to make some irrational and quick judgements on pretty much everything (and everyone). It's not your fault, blame it evolution and the development of our brains. The irony here is that judging people is hard, knowing people is harder and understanding them is hardest so we tend to settle for the easiest route which is to judge. Consider its auto-pilot without the pilot. People label others together to simplify the world around them and make both interacting and understanding it easier. It's called Categorical labeling and although it serves a purpose, it's deeply flawed and can be the root cause for many of the problems we face in our relationships with others. Labeling is a technique the brain has developed to make understanding the complexities of the world easier, although these assumptions are often incorrect, incomplete or down right insulting. So how dangerous is this really?
Another way to look at this and a term most people recognize is "unconscious bias" and in the past decade, there has been an uptick in companies not only discussing this issue but training their organization to better understand what it is and how to minimize it within the workplace. So, what is it (for those who aren't familiar)?
- It is an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group. It's your unconscious feelings you carry around about other people – these feelings strongly impact and influence your judgement of certain people, while lacking perspective or objectivity limiting your perception.
The impact of our biases are also incredibly real and impact our:
- Perception – how we see people and perceive reality.
- Attitude – how we react towards certain people.
- Behaviors – how receptive/friendly we are towards certain people.
- Attention – which aspects of a person we pay most attention to.
- Listening Skills – how much we actively listen to what certain people say.
- Micro-affirmations – how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations.
In the workplace, there are 4 main types of unconscious bias to watch out for:
Now that we covered the "why" - let's look at the "what" and in this case, the what refers to the various types of stereotypes and labels that currently take place in the office. There are so many stereotypes out there, it really depends on what specific category or group you are looking to typecast. Three common stereotypes you should avoid being labeled as are:
- The Gossip: Commonly associated with someone who likes to know everything about everyone regardless if it has anything to do with them. They rarely can be trusted and can be heard saying "hey, did you hear about..."
- The Know-It-All: Commonly associated with someone who has an opinion about everything and everyone. Considered a SME in life, can be heard saying, "well, at my last job - this is what we did..."
- The People Pleaser: Commonly associated with someone who lacks the courage to stand up to others (when asked to take something on) and is taken advantage of over and over again. Lacking personal boundaries and possessing a strong need to be liked, this person can be heard saying, "sure, I can help - whatever you need?"
Did I mention that there are a lot of labels? Lucky for you (and for me) I found thisinfographic from PowWowNow which provides a great overview of twenty additional stereotypes:
How To Remove A Label
Labeling and stereotyping in the workplace can quickly sink morale, lower productivity and create a toxic environment for you and your employees. Once labeled, it can be challenging if not impossible to change it. Einstein once said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one" and the same theory applies at work. You may not actually be any of the labels placed upon you but to do nothing about it makes the label stick stronger and the perception (to others) is that it's true.
If you find that you have been unfairly labeled, there are some steps you can take to improve the situation so it doesn't cost you your career and happiness.
- Assess the substance and the source of the label. Is there any truth to it?
- Seek out a second or third opinion from a co-worker/peer you trust to determine if there is any validity to your bad reputation.
- If you are in a position leadership role, take a look at your style of management -are they any subtle (or not so subtle) changes you could make?
- If you conclude that you do need to improve a personal attribute, get clear on what it is and make a commitment to yourself to change your behavior.
According to the HBR article You Really Can Change Your Reputation at Work there are some principles to remember if you find yourself being labeled by another person:
- Address the issue head on, especially if you were in the wrong.
- If you want a more positive impression to stick in someone’s mind, you have to offer it up repeatedly.
- Look for characteristics you share with the person. Common ground will help soften their stance.
- Accuse the person of being wrong about you. Their perception is their perception, and it’s up to you to help “correct” it.
- Avoid working with the person. The more you’re in front of them, the better.
- Expect people to change their minds on a dime. Shifting someone’s perception often takes time.
Final thoughts: Labeling isn't always a cause for concern, and it can be useful in certain instances, but when thrusted upon another coworker irresponsibly, this becomes both dangerous and demeaning leaving you and your employee's feeling bullied while fracturing your culture. It's up to your organization to take the proper measures to ensure discrimination of others and self is not tolerated and a safe workplace environment is created so that you can perform and enjoy your job.
The floor is yours: How does unconscious bias impact a companies culture ?