Excerpt from Unfear: Transform Your Organization to Create Breakthrough Performance and Employee Well-Being by Gaurav Bhatnagar and Mark Minukas, pp. 150-153 (McGraw Hill, November 2021) https://unfearbook.com.
Humans apply labels to one another in an attempt to process and understand the world. We use a great diversity of labels. They can be as simple as a role-based label, such as chief technology officer, shop floor worker, supervisor, manager, director, or vice president. We also use functional labels that describe the work a person does, such as sales, marketing, IT, human resources, or project lead. Then there are the more subjective, interpretative labels, ones that make assumptions about capability, such as reliable/unreliable, creative/predictable, or expert/novice, or character labels, such as tough, caring, inspirational, rude, fun, or aloof.
Labels serve a purpose—they’re a social shorthand that helps us act in appropriate ways around different people. Interacting with a boss, for instance, requires a different style of communication than interacting with a customer, a friend, or a subordinate. Labels also make it easier to describe how the world works. We don’t say, “A previously unknown human being who will soon oversee my work and determine if I will be promoted or fired just came into our office to learn more about how it works.” We say, “The new boss just arrived.”
This shorthand also has three major downsides:
- On teams that are tied to labels, everybody responds to the preconceived notions those labels invoke instead of to what actually happens in a situation. Returning to the statement, “The new boss just arrived,” the phrase new boss will conjure a different meaning for and a different reaction from each person in the office. One person might think that he or she needs to go out of his or her way to show the new boss respect. Another might expect the new boss to fire some employees, so that person might start acting in an extra safe, conservative way to preserve his or her job. This not only creates dysfunction, but it wastes time. New bosses have to dispel what everyone believes about them before they can even connect with their team.
- Labeling dehumanizes people and creates transactional relationships. We often hear frontline workers gripe, “I am just a number.” By this they mean, “I am just a thing, a resource to be used and discarded.” Labels often reduce people to the level of a utility. In the corporate world, this can be convenient, especially when it is time to make difficult decisions. But it is also tremendously disempowering for individual employees. It limits how that individual shows up within the team and it prevents that individual from sharing all his or her diverse capabilities, ideas, and experiences. In other words, it prevents the team from exploring its collective infinite potential.
One of the most dehumanizing and common labels we hear in organizations is “us” and “them.” People often label their own tribe as “us” and outsiders as “them.” Us, the employees, versus them, the managers; us, production, versus them, maintenance; us, management, versus them, the shareholders. Whenever we hear these words, we know that the company has a dysfunctional relationship with fear. It’s often a sign that people see their colleagues as threats rather than as collaborators who can help them grow.
- When we view labels as fixed, they prevent us from learning new things about ourselves and other people. It’s important to remember that we label ourselves as much as we do others. Often we don’t interact with the people around us; rather, we interact with the labels we’ve assigned to them from the labels we’ve assigned ourselves. We assume that we know everything about this person—who she is, how she’ll show up, what she’ll say, how she’ll treat us and why, how she deserves to be treated and why, etc. Likewise, we assume that we know everything about ourselves. Labels wreck the magic of new possibilities in relationships and doom us to repeat our old, dysfunctional patterns.
To counter this, we need to interact with each other human to human. We need to keep an open and curious mind about the people we meet and about what drives them so as to understand that there’s wonderful complexity and mystery within everyone. In this human-to-human mindset, we acknowledge that we can’t see inside someone else’s mind and that we can only discover what that person thinks through conversation. We believe that everyone can contribute in magnificent ways that we cannot imagine and that everyone can learn to adopt new patterns and mindsets.
The idea is not to do away with labels. Simply put, we treat people as human when we acknowledge that any label is incomplete, limiting, and often inaccurate. We treat people as human when we hold labels lightly rather than as a statement of immutable fact, when we believe that everyone deserves the same respect, regardless of their labels, when we acknowledge that our fundamental needs as human beings don’t change depending on our roles and that even the “big boss” needs to feel connected, listened to, and respected, just like the frontline workers serving customers—and indeed just like customers themselves.
This human-to-human frame is the starting point for empathy, deep listening, and trust. It’s what allows for principles such as “respect every individual” to be a lived reality, not just an abstract concept. When a team lives human to human, not only do team members know each other’s utility but they also know their dreams, aspirations, and histories.
Such teams allow everyone to show up as their whole selves, to feel safe and comfortable contributing new ideas and doing their best. They can adapt, respond, and grow—together.
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