Label Me Not

| | Personal Leadership

Earlier this year I was sitting at a table of 6 people I did not know in the role of a coach. One of the participants shared what she had accomplished and a challenge she faced right now.

I listened to her story.  She was quite inspiring. There were many directions I could have gone with my response. As a coach, perhaps even more than in any other role I play, I am aware there are never “right answers” or a single best response. There are only questions and perspectives that can be offered for consideration.

What happened next caught me by surprise. And it was only later that I realized what had happened and why I reacted the way I did.

Another coach at the table jumped in and began by saying “Susan is clearly a blueprinter, and I am a firestarter…” I don’t recall what came just after that as that little voice in my head piped in taking my attention away from the speaker.  I was irritated and in that moment not quite sure exactly why because I typically love to hear alternate perspectives.

I pushed away my thoughts and managed to mentally return before missing too much of what she said.  As I listened though my mild irritation escalated into major annoyance. It was interesting to me I could feel so annoyed in that moment, yet at the same time really appreciate the perspective being offered.

I was surprised by my reaction and wondered “why the heck am I reacting so strongly?”

The word “blueprinter” was clearly not assigned in a negative context and I am certain there was no malintent.  On the surface it looked like a good way to segue into an alternative point of view.

It wasn’t until later I realized what had happened for me.

This person, someone who did not even know me at all, had stuffed me into a “box”.

I felt at once confined and diminished by a simple linguistic act – I was given a label.

It may have even been a valid assessment about me, at least at some level. However, given I was not familiar with the distinction so authoritatively assigned to me, I had no choice, but to accept it.

Categories are not inherently a bad thing.  Your mind is constantly assigning categories to everything to help you make sense of your world.  The ability to categorize is essential to functioning in a complex world.

There is, however, a big difference between using categories in our own minds and overtly assigning them as a label to another.

Using distinctions to understand ourselves better is often very empowering. Tools such as Meiers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Kolbe Index can be great tools for fostering understanding of ourselves and others.  When applied in a group setting and done well they can improve our effectiveness in how we relate to one another.

However, even these well thought out tools can be misused when the distinctions provided are used as labels that oversimplify who someone is and confine who they can be in our world view and the world view of others.

The moment you overtly assign a category to someone else in the world you are not just making sense of your world, you are influencing theirs.

This is because when you overtly assign a category to someone, in other words label them, you influence not only how they see themselves, but how others see them as well.  If you are in a leadership role it is a good idea to be particularly mindful about this because positional labels such as “manager” or “vice-president” or “chairperson”  often add even more authority to the labels you assign.

Does that mean you should stop using categories?

Of course not. You couldn’t even if you tried. And when you become well versed in a tool that distinguishes categories you can’t help but see people through those lenses. The understanding you gain from such inquiries can be very helpful in guiding your interactions with others.

If, however, you want to empower and support others in living into their full potential consider keeping your labels to yourself.

Instead of telling someone who they are, leaders listen for and paint a possibility of who someone can be.

The former relegates someone to a box from which it may be hard to escape, while the latter creates an environment in which there is not only room to grow, but also a compelling reason to try.

What do you think?


Enter A Comment

Gwyn Teatro   |   05 December 2011   |   Reply

Hi Susan,
I think people simply like to choose their own place in the world and when someone presumes to know what that is, it feels like a violation even if it is meant with the best of intentions.
I love the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and used it quite a bit in the latter years of my full-time career. The one thing I learned about administering this tool is that regardless of its outcome, the type we settle on is always the one we choose regardless of how we respond to the questions. Most times, the responses matched well with the type and people easily recognized themselves but it was never for me to tell them where they belonged.

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Well said Gwyn – we prefer to “choose our own place in the world”. And as you point out even with the tools there is still choice involved. It is the trap of normative tools. I am certified in a values tool that is ipsative rather than normative – it’s uses your responses to establish the relative importance of your values to you rather than comparing your responses to the responses of others. Kolbe also seems less confining to me than Meiers Briggs – at least in how I have experienced it.

Dorothy Dalton   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Susan – this post is particularly timely as obviously psychometric testing is a major tool in job search and I have come across exactly this sort of case only today! Vocabulary can be ambiguous and needs explaining and developing to have any value in the workplace. If it leads to a tendency to make quick decisions in any process, whether team building or hiring, based on pre- assigned labels then that can actually serve to be counter productive .

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Hadn;t thought about the application in job serach so thanks for bringing that up. Shared understanding of language is so important. You have me thinking…There is that point when the inquiry involved in creating a shared understanding stops and the “definition” is set. It is in that moment that the vocabulary starts to be used mindlessly and can inadvertently cause harm or close down possibilities. Shared language can definitely make communication more efficient but it doesn’t always make it more effective.

Can you give an example of a label that you have seen become counterproductive in the hiring process?

Mike Henry Sr.   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

I’m like you in that labels make me bristle. I tend to try to bust them whenever possible. The tendency people have to over-simplify others simply by using the labels is annoying too. But I also have to admit that I use them and must remember always to give others the benefit of the doubt and not put them in boxes. I like your analogy of painting and allowing others to show you all of their colors. No one is ever one thing. Great reminder. Thanks.

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

“Bristle” is a great word to describe that feeling! Having the experience myself was a great way to be reminded I need to be mindful because like you I know I use them, too. Thanks Mike!

Shawn Murphy   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Thank you for using yourself as a “test subject” for this difficult topic for all of us – acknowledging flaws in our world view. We categorize, or distinguish, people to make sense of the world quickly. Our world view influences such distinctions. Harm isn’t always an outcome. Separation and weak connections with people or groups is sacrificed. We also weaken our leadership by relying on labels to inspire, coach, or leave others alone.

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Very true that harm isn’t always an outcome Shawn. For me this experience was a reminder to be more mindful in my own communication as well. I am sure I have done this to others and realize that even when I intend no harm I can still unknowlingly do harm or close down possibility. I think if we bring consciousness to our communication the words we choose are more effective than if we rely on jargon or idiomatic language. It is hard work but I have found it is worth it.

Jon M   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Susan, Such an essential insight! Labeling puts everything in a neat box, but there is no such thing as neat boundaries in life. Understanding the possibility, as you state, is what enables people to do more and for organization to achieve more. Excellent! Jon

Susan Mazza   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Thank you Jon! Great point that there is no such thing as “neat boundaries”.

Jesse Stoner   |   06 December 2011   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

The coach put himself in the role of “expert” and you were relegated to listener. A bit of a power play, perhaps? Whether intentional or not, there was no space for your voice.

I agree with Shawn that models and categories can be useful as they are vehicles that help us organize information and make sense of our complex world. But we need to remember that they are artificial constructs and not absolute reality.

Tools like MBTI can be used to help people understand that we are not all the same and to value our differences. But, as you so eloquently point, these same tools can also be misused and box people in.

As a former school psychologist, working with children with special needs, I tried very hard to avoid labeling children because of the stereotyping it engendered. Labeling is evaluative. It’s much more helpful to be descriptive. You might appreciate this paper titled “Label Jars, Not People” which came out of research at Syracuse University in the early 1970’s. Although it focuses on special needs, it is clearly applicable to other situations. http://archives.syr.edu/collections/faculty/blatt/PDFs/bib55.pdf

Your response to Shawn hit the nail on the head, “I think if we bring consciousness to our communication the words we choose are more effective than if we rely on jargon or idiomatic language.”

Thank you for an excellent post on an important topic.

Susan Mazza   |   07 December 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Jesse. Your point that “we need to remember that they are artificial constructs and not absolute reality” is spot on. Once we internalize a label or jargon it becomes a kind of truth – we don’t question it anymore because it just “is”.

Thanks for sharing the article too – I have a school district client that will really appreciate this article.

Appreciate you adding your wisdom to the conversation!

Jenifer Olson   |   07 December 2011   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

Excellent thoughts here. I totally agree labels can be pejorative and limiting. “Senior worker” comes to mind in the job market! 🙂 Sadly, once you are assigned a label, it’s an uphill battle to overcome the value judgments the label confers. When we classify people, we pigeonhole them and deny their inestimable human complexity.

As Walt Whitman said, “…I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Jenifer @jenajean

Susan Mazza   |   09 December 2011   |   Reply

Love the Whitman quote Jenifer!

This is well said: ” When we classify people, we pigeonhole them and deny their inestimable human complexity.”

The “Senior Worker” thing is maddening. The wisdom of experience is highly underrated!

Terry   |   08 December 2011   |   Reply

Hi Susan,

I see the problem with ‘category’ tools in terms of how they are used rather than the tools themselves. I expect that Carl Jung would be really frustrated to see his theory of personality types being used to put people into MBTI boxes. The ‘category’ should be just used to raise self awareness of perferences or habits. The next step is then to develop the rest of the person’s potential. Jung called this process ‘individuation’.

It’s unfortunate that most MBTI practitioners just put people in boxes. They’re just doing half a job.


Susan Mazza   |   09 December 2011   |   Reply

I agree with you Terry. It is interesting though that I have seen practitioners go to great lengths to explain how the tool should be used, and watched people start flinging the categories at people like they were experts and the categories they were assigned were truths. It’s why I have shied away from using these tools. I do like the Kolbe index though because it is done in a way that is more about tendencies and patterns and less about the categories themselves. I also use an ipsative Values survey which is absolutely fantastic from a company called NETTPS.

Soul Dancer   |   10 January 2012   |   Reply

Aloha Susan,

Ahhhhh – yes! Labels. Like rungs on a ladder, it provides a secure step toward something. Understanding? Comfort? Identity? Conformity? Pecking order? Authority? (Truly, a short-list to say the least.)

Looking over the past four plus decades, I giggle at how many labels I’ve assigned myself – not to mention what others (knowing or unknowingly) painted on me.

Each step of awakening I’ve discovered how labels may offer a life-ring for someone drowning in their own dark sea of dramas or traumas. To tell someone who’s suffering from a physical illness that you’re a professional (insert title here – such as Doctor, therapist, coach, monk, etc.) and can help them – may provide the necessary comfort in the form of ‘feeling safe’ or ‘cared for’ – a critical space to re-member – one’s own power and ability.

However, sadly, most folks like to wrap souls in a handy book-cover (aka – label, title, identity). Once that cover is on, it’s pretty hard to change it. One’s initial “identity” seems to ‘stick’ regardless of what is happening RIGHT NOW.

As we all evolve – daily – it’s abundantly apparent we ‘upgrade’ an awareness that what someone ‘was’ is NOT who that person ‘is’ no matter how similar that person seems to be – right now.

For all reading this post, I share a ‘call to action’ – an action that sparks the magic of unconditional love . . .

Each time you meet someone after some time has passed, quietly ponder this question, “How may I create the safe-space for this person to upgrade my awareness of who they are, and what they bring to my life.”

I often ask people, “What’s different in your life lately?” If I receive the a standard ‘polite’ response “Oh, nothing really!” I reply back with – WOW – really? Are you genuinely happy with nothing changing?”

It’s surprising what responses bubble-up from that reply. In that moment – if we’re lucky – labels automatically dissolve.