“What a Jerk!” The Tyranny of Labels

“She’s a micromanager,” “He’s just lazy,” “My boss is totally unfair,” “My team member is not a self-starter,” and the list goes on. We all use these labels. We put people into categories. It is a shorthand way of understanding them and simplifying our choices about how to treat them. But, there are many dangers in overusing such categories. In leadership training classes, I conduct an exercise around a concept about GLOP = General Labeling Of People. I ask participants to name as many words or phrases as they can think of that describe, “people and the way they are.” I always get a similar list of words. “Lazy” is almost always listed (usually the first one named) along with irresponsible, rude, micro-manager, aggressive, pushy, and many others – some in the most colorful language you can imagine. The listing is followed by a discussion of the words and the possible risks of relying too heavily on “GLOPs.” It doesn’t take long for participants to note:

  • They lock you into a certain way of thinking about that person.
  • It may not be true. It’s just your opinion.
  • They are contagious. Other people will start copying you.
  • They may damage the relationship.
  • They influence the way that person responds to you. People live up to or down to the label.
  • You could get sued.
  • It makes it harder to be objective.

…and so on.

Many also remember the classic study by Robert Rosenthal, “Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development.” (1968). In that study, Rosenthal told teachers that certain students, who had been selected at random, were superior students and could be expected to undergo an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. And, consistent with the experimental hypothesis, the randomly selected students improved significantly more on their schoolwork and on I.Q. scores than the other students. The only credible explanation of these results was that the teachers treated the students differently, even though they did not do so deliberately.

Labels Can Make a Difference in Leadership

But what does this have to do with leadership training? The power of expectations is impactful in every aspect of our lives, including the workplace. The expectations that leaders have of their team members can have considerable influence on the performance of the team. Even Rosenthal explored this possibility. “Rosenthal notes that the expectancy effect has been documented in business management (where the biasing effect is the expectations of employers about their employees), in courtrooms (where the biasing effect is the expectations about the defendant’s guilt or innocence), and in nursing homes (where the biasing effect is the expectation that a patient will get better or worse). In all cases, the expectations tend to come true, whether they are based on any objective evidence or not. Apparently, as a general rule, people make their expectations come true. Rosenthal’s research shows the Pygmalion effect is not only important; it is robust. It is a strong effect that occurs in many situations. [1]

leadership training successful teamIf that is true, then how do leaders prevent that effect from biasing their evaluations and treatment of team members? If it is unintentional, how does one know? You can never be absolutely certain, of course. But, leadership training that focuses on communication skills that describe behavior rather than relying on inferences, judgments, and the like can be very useful. In an electronics factory with a highly successful team process, such training was offered to all managers, supervisors, and team leaders [2]. The participants worked very hard to put aside their “GLOPs” and really discipline themselves to communicate about behaviors instead. Their success was not limited to good team process. They demonstrated a huge improvement in quality, quantity, schedule, absenteeism, reduced grievances, and so forth. You would think that their colleagues from other departments would be curious about how they had achieved these results. In some cases, that was so.

But many seemed more interested in “explaining” the results, often in very unflattering terms. “They were lucky. They are just cooking the books. They must be cheating. They just happened to get the best people.” In other words, GLOPs. In some cases, to prove their point, they arranged to have their “troublemakers” transferred to the factory. They reasoned, “If they had to manage the ‘idiots’ we have to deal with, they wouldn’t be so successful.” This created an unusual opportunity to see what would happen to those people in the new environment. Suddenly, the “troublemakers” were in an environment in which they were not labeled. Instead, they were given very straightforward feedback about their behavior (both acceptable and unacceptable). Predictably, their performance improved substantially. In some cases, the “troublemakers” became excellent performers who consistently exceeded expectations.

Labels, in addition to all of the risks already mentioned, are fundamentally untrue in most cases. They tend to arouse suspicion because they are always based on information that the sender (the person using the label) cannot possibly know for sure. A person is “lazy” only if they are deliberately trying to get out of doing their work. That is a motive or an intention. The only person who knows one’s motivation or intention is the person with the motive or intention. You cannot see inside another person’s head. You do not have access to that information no matter how smart, clever, or insightful you may be. Any statement that includes an assumption, inference, or judgment relies on such inaccessible information. They are guesses about what is going on inside the other person’s head. That is not to say that people are not sometimes lazy, irresponsible, or greedy. Sometimes they are. But, we never know these things for sure. We only know what we experience directly. We can see what another person does and hear what they say, but we do not know why.

Leadership training that encourages participants to focus on the facts of the situation, what they see and hear, can do much to reduce the negative impact of the overuse of labels. This is a skill that can be developed and the leadership training should acknowledge that it takes some time to learn a new skill. You can’t really rush it. It is easy to get participants to agree intellectually that focusing on behaviors is a wise thing to do but they will still describe a team member’s behavior as a “bad attitude.” It takes patience, good facilitation, and lots of follow-up. Leadership training like Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training is a good example of this. It is experiential, includes lots of direct feedback, and plenty of practice. It provides participants with a set of tools that help them confront problems clearly and directly without assumptions, inferences and judgments [3].

It is always a good practice to rely more on our direct observations than assumptions and guesses but the need to do so increases as the situation becomes more and more difficult. When there are disagreements, behaviors that interfere with the team’s objectives, poor economic conditions, or other problems, the dangers of relying on labels in our communication increases considerably. As fear increases, so do the risks.

It is also good to note that the same principles apply to behaviors that you see as helpful. Describing something that someone does to make your life (job, assignment, project) happier or more productive is, in many ways, more useful than the traditional “pat on the head.” Although telling a team member, “You are a great employee,” may not be as risky as the more negative GLOPs, a more descriptive statement like, “I truly appreciated it that you came in early and made those corrections in my Power Point. I was really ready for my presentation” is far more powerful. It gives the listener a lot more information about the connection between their behavior and your ability to meet your needs.

So, stick with what you can see and hear. The less you assume and guess, the better off you will be in the long run.

[1] Dewey, Russell A., Psychology: An Introduction, http://www.intropsych.com/, 2007
[2] Leader Effectiveness Training, Developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon.
[3 In Leader Effectiveness Training, these are called “I-Messages.” They include three parts: non-blameful description of the behavior, concrete and tangible effects, and congruent feelings or emotions.

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