A leading consumer magazine article recently discussed the rapid increase in the number of people paying attention to food labels when doing grocery shopping.
The labels contain information that heavily influence our decision as to whether to place the item into our shopping cart or back on the shelf.
In other words, labels help us decide whether we want anything to do with the content of the package. Our decisions therefore are influenced heavily by labels.
So too are we influenced by the labels we place on people.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when meeting with a group of senior executives at a large manufacturing company.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss and investigate reasons and causes for poor performance within certain divisions of the organization.
In each case, as particular problems were highlighted, blame and responsibility was immediately attributed to certain employees followed by labels used to explain his or her ineptitude.
I listened as labels like, @$$#*!=, fool, not very bright, lazy, incapable of following simple directions, and many other choice descriptors were used to provide clarity as to why expected results were not being met.
Many of these executives used words like frustrated and had enough to describe the challenges they faced in their everyday dealings with these folks.
It was very clear to me these managers – correct as they may have been in their assessments of the competency levels of their staff – were making a fundamental mistake common to us all, when we label others.
You see, labels never disappoint us, they never let us down. People we have labelled as idiots always do idiotic things, and those we have labelled as smart constantly amaze us with their brightness.
Labels put us in seek and ye shall find mode because by labelling others we stop seeing them as humans and, by virtue of viewing them through the lens of the label, we see them only as objects, as things.
Not only do labels set us up and set expectations within us of the performance of those we have labelled, they also serve to prime us for how we will conduct ourselves when we are with these people.
We are not objects, we are people and each of us comes complete with our strengths, weaknesses, challenges, insecurities, competencies, likeability’s, non—likeability’s and an enormous host of other attributes.
The labels we place on people are driven by our interpretation of their behaviour (or by how we have been influenced by others who have interpreted their behaviour) and until we learn and accept that people are not their behaviour (and that our interpretation of their behaviour is heavily influenced by our biases and is, therefore, totally subjective) we will struggle with the idea of treating people as people.
In the same way as our purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by the labels on the packages of the food we buy, our evaluation and assessment decisions are equally influenced by the labels on the packages we have placed around those we interact with.
If we truly want to learn how to bring out the best in people a good place to start is by removing the labels we have hung around their necks.
Perhaps the healthiest label we can deploy is the one we place around our own necks that simply reads, judgment free.
When we do this we will be able to see the content of the whole person standing in front of us, not just the limitations written on the package.
Till we read again.