Grade B

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.

Ask Why

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.

 

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2 thoughts on “Grade B

  1. This is a great post Christopher! I couldn’t agree more. It takes a lot of patience and wisdom, I think, to withhold judgment when you hear certain things about people.

    I had a relevant situation come up recently. I was speaking to a woman I had just met; and we realized that we have an acquaintance in common. She then proceeded to characterize him as “one of the most aggressive people I have ever met…” Not in a good way.

    I was stunned. I knew the guy fairly well, and I would never have used the word “aggressive” to describe him. In fact, I would call him laid back, kind, and warm-hearted.

    When I asked her “what do you mean?” it turned out that he had accidentally forwarded her an email that was meant for someone else. Her entire impression of him was based on that one lapse in judgement. And she felt so justified in her opinion, that she didn’t think twice about blabbing about it to me, someone she didn’t even know.

    I think giving people the benefit of the doubt, and allowing for mistakes (since we’re all just human), is one of the hallmarks of decency. It’s not always easy.

  2. Thanks for your note Angela: I absolutely agree. Its way to easy to categorize people with a glib comment that gets passed around until its accepted as truth. But is it right? It is a mark of human decency to think twice and share only the better things: the things that really mark someone’s character as opposed to just a piece of behavior.

    Your thoughts are welcomed and intelligent: thank you for sharing!

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