Labeling is an easy skill for most of us. Our minds have been trained to categorize and label people, things and places. There are schemata filling the schema in our brains. In other words, files filling file cabinets in our minds with connections and definitions. It’s why you might smell something, good or bad, and connect it to a memory, a place, a person or a time. We label.
For those of you re-watching episodes on MeTV of “Happy Days” (or maybe watching them for the first time), you know that the coolest guy on the earth in the 1970’s was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka Fonzie. Initially labeled a juvenile delinquent, Fonzie rose to show a deeper character and a true coolness. When an organization that worked with kids with who suffered serious abuse and were emotional stifled came to the attention of director Garry Marshall, he wanted Fonzie to alter the label of super-cool a bit. When Fonzie cried in one episode, and those kids watched it, the result was an open door for that agency to help those kids. They were ready to emote since Fonzie did.
The labeling takes over rather quickly, however. We decide who is a jerk, who is nice, who is conceited, who is fake, who is a wimp. We connect people into categories and then treat the group in that category in the same manner. We respond singularly, for example, to someone who is mean. For some of us, we retreat from such a person. For others, we look to engage and rip apart that person. It’s a sport – the art of the run and the art of the fight. We all travel the scale and, for some of us, we have to manage people on the same scale.
Our involvement in the label movement is an everyday contribution. When we treat our employees in a responsive manner rather than at the level we want them to operate, we display our commitment to the label rather than the person. To be sure, there are jerks. Of course, those jerks might not be long for their employment. Yet, even if they are to be with you for a short time, let’s engage them in a way that calls them to greatness rather than meets them in their jerkiness.
As you think about how you’re reacting, consider these thoughts:
- Check your tone – are you sharper with a particular person than others? Is your label of that person the reason for the difficulty in communication?
- Re-read emails before you send them – when tone is hard to know, as it is in emails, it means that a bit more time should be spent re-reading prior to send. You may be giving shade, even unintentionally, by doors you’ve left open for interpretation of words (and, yes, I said “shade”).
- Examine distribution of work – are you sharing types of work as well as the amount of work equally, based upon skill sets alone? Or are you giving the crappy work only to the employee you’ve labeled negatively?
- Rotate opportunities to lead – Allow staff to take turns leading various meetings, training sessions or projects. By rotating the team leader, you are sure that you’re negative slant towards someone isn’t getting in the way of job expectations and opportunities.
If you’re thinking, “I would never let So-And-So lead a meeting or be in charge of a specific type of work”, that’s fine. I would just ask back, “Well, then, why is he/she still working at the company?” If the basis work of work isn’t being met that you’ve uniformly given, then the employment of that person should end. The work is the reason a person is hired.
Bear in mind, too, that people might just sometimes surprise you. The jerk could let his/her guard down and show you how wonderful he/she is. The wimp might find his/her courage due to the way you’re running the department. The fake might become the most authentic person on your team as he/she learns that skill sets and work product matter more than the facade portrayed. If Fonzie can cry, then any of these changes could happen. Heyyyyy…