Recently I was called for a reference and was asked for the “one word that best described the candidate”. One word?, I thought. How can I possibly encapsulate all the power and potential of this person in just one word? And worse, once I say whatever word I pick, will it be affixed in the other person’s mind forever? What if I get it wrong?
I don’t know if we’re all born with an overzealous need to organize everything, but I have noticed we seem to have a keen need to label ourselves, and the people around us.
Through our lives we collect a series of labels. These labels are hewn from inputs from all over: descriptions put on report cards by first grade teachers; off-handed comments by teenage friends; feedback from your first work supervisor; a comment thrown out in a heated discussion with a loved one… the sources are endless!
We seem to latch on to these labels and they frame a basis for how we see ourselves. Sometimes they even drive our behaviour in terms of prescribing how we act in the future. In many ways we are what we believe about ourselves, and equally dangerous we see others in the context of the labels that we have heard affixed to them.
These labels put opaque lenses on our observations, colouring our impressions of what we see in others. And they can actually be self-fulfilling prophecies that influence the opportunities people are given, and the interpretation of their work.
In building teams it is important that we not encapsulate our team members in labels that limit their ability to stretch and to bring the full extent of their contribution to the table. Putting labels on people, or on ourselves, allows us to organize the team into a nice little arrangement in our mind – yet it also restricts the full range of contribution that the team members can bring.
By labelling someone with a functional expertise you run the risk of ignoring his or her great ideas outside of that specific area. By labelling someone with a certain personality trait you ignore other parts of his or her personality or needs. By labelling someone with a certain competency you can ignore the many other competencies that they have, or that they can develop if given the opportunity. Similarly, when you label yourself you restrict your innovation and your willingness to step out of your ‘label zone’ and stretch yourself to your maximum.
This call was a gentle reminder to myself to avoid the trap of assigning neat little labels on myself or on others…because nothing is more limiting than that.