Labels are difficult.
The other morning while enjoying waffles with delicious syrup I noticed the maple syrup label said Grade B.
Grade B? What happened to A? Isn't A better?
Turns out the grade measures translucence, ie., the amount of light that passes through the syrup. The USDA uses four grades (three different As and the B) with the last being the densest or darkest.
Translucence is typically a function of when the sap is tapped from the tree: the earlier in the season the lighter it tends to be. Thus, even though this label isn't a mark of quality it can be perceived as such.
[For real maple syrup info check in with my friend the aficionado Julie Waddell, @JAWaddell).
Labels mean what we want them to. Think Spinal Tap's volume scene (These go to 11).
Labels at Work
Think of people in the office. We use all sorts of modifiers to describe them in a single word or phrase.
Go-getter, high-flier, problem child, winner, loser, prima donna, high maintenance, bitch, prick, closer (you get coffee!), rock star and my personal favorite, issue, as in, “well, he's an issue.”
Or even better, he has issues.
Labels are a convenient way to summarize the whole of a human being in just a few syllables. We like them because they expedite communication and allow us to quickly place people in nice little mental models inhabiting boxes of pre-determined value.
Labels are Simplistic
Humans on the other hand are complex. We're not one thing or the other. It isn't axiomatic that people have one trait at the mutual exclusion of others. Could the most overbearing of us be at the same time incredibly sweet? Yes: look at any number of high tech CEOs.
Could incredibly bright and capable people make bad choices? Of course: how many times have we seen family, friends or co-workers do terribly destructive things in their lives when they could have easily and reasonably known better and behaved differently.
People aren't labels or grades. We can't easily be slotted and compartmentalized.
And yet, our tendency is to let our minds use this quasi-categorization system to help manage our way through complex information and insight about others.
Especially in Human Resources and our close cousin Recruiting we need to ask ourselves what labels really mean and why we use them. To better grasp the unstated implications behind them try this.
For one day every time a coworker labels someone else, ask them in a straightforward non-judgmental way, what do you mean by that? In other words, what's the behavior driving that grade? You may find some of the labels are just leftover remnants of the past.
And quite possibly not accurate or appropriate any longer.
All of us are the sum of our parts. All of us have many facets and sides to our being that we bring to bear in different circumstances. Maybe we bring much of them to bear at work, maybe not. The point is this: we are more complex and complete than a simple label or grade implies.
And we deserve to be treated as such.
Think about that when you label others.
Or we're gonna have issues.