The Dangers of Labeling People

By Jerry Roberts

So you have a “bad” boss, eh?
So, you supervise a “bad” frontline worker?

But is it really a case of being “bad?” And is using that particular word to describe a worker really a problem? The first answer is almost always “no.” The second one is absolutely “yes.”

Before you roll your eyes and call me an idiot, let me explain.

This is basic human relations that mothers and grandmothers know well. Any time a child misbehaves you separate the kid from the behavior. A bad test score doesn’t mean the child is stupid. Your son or daughter may never remember what the test was about, but I guarantee you that he/she will never forget the day you called them dumb.

You better believe that the same rule is in force in the workplace. You call somebody “bad” and that never goes away.

Let me make the obligatory statement that yes, there are truly bad — even evil minded — bosses and frontline workers, but I believe they represent little more than a blip on the workplace universe as a whole.

​The honest truth about the general workplace today is that most people don’t hate their job. They may not be overjoyed about what they do or where they’re employed, or even who supervises them, but they don’t — repeat — don’t hate their job.

​Most of the people we meet in the workplace aren’t bad

Some may be lazy, inefficient, uninspired, distracted, undisciplined, disengaged, unwilling, wasteful, arrogant, and totally devoid of responsibility. The majority of workers, regardless of their job title, has at some point been thought of in one or more of those descriptions. That's a fact.

However, if you assessed the overall condition of “workdom” (my pet word, even if it’s not really a word) after searching through most job and career advice Web sites and forums, I think you’d come away convinced that the majority of bosses are mean spirited jerks who — instead of working on organizational business — spend most of their time concocting new ways to torture their employees.

Some writers try to offer a balanced view, but too often it’s a bash fest. I’ve seen a few who overstate this issue in order to pump a new book. Manipulating reality for personal gain is nothing new. It works, always has, and always will.

The honest truth about the general workplace today is that most people don’t hate their job. They may not be overjoyed about what they do or where they’re employed, or even who supervises them, but they don’t — repeat — don’t hate their job.

They have good days and other days, but for the most part get along with coworkers — including their boss.

Would they leave for a better situation? Yes, many would. Research consistently shows that well over 50% of your talent is emotionally open to an offer at any given time. For those who leave a job voluntarily — and not because they received higher compensation elsewhere — it’s true that a poor relationship with a supervisor is often the reason.

When confronted with a label​...consider the labeler

I recall a friend who took a job at a communications company, and reported that the person assigned to guide her through her introductions made a big effort to let her know who to hang out with and who to avoid; who the good people were and which ones were backstabbers. She got a complete rundown on everybody.

It reminded her of a time when she was the new girl in school and was told who it was cool to sit with at lunch.

Her initial guide wasn’t the only one who had such opinions. Over the first few weeks of her employment she picked up similar advice from other associates. The funny thing was that everyone seemed to differ a bit on just who was in which category.

This is why labels should be ignored. They are subjective. My likes and dislikes may not match up with yours. Reality check: Does everyone else agree with your choice of labels? If other workers don’t see the boss as a monster, that’s when that inner voice of caution and reason should kick in and put the brakes on our ego, bringing us back to Earth.

It should, but it frequently doesn’t. More often than not, ego trumps rational thinking. Our need to be right supersedes our need to do right. Is this ringing any bells?

I've been guilty of ego and labeling

Living in California in the late 1980s I had one boss who in my opinion was bad, petty, mean — all of it at a world class level. My peers agreed that he had serious faults and could be all of those things, but that I was overboard in my view. I stubbornly clung to one viewpoint and verbally challenged anyone who tried to defend the guy.

While I proved my debating skills, it was really just my ego not allowing me to step back and try to see it as others did.

Yes, the guy was a jerk and mistreated people, but to different degrees. I had to finally admit that my relationship with him wasn’t as good as my peers — and I had some responsibility for that.

Look inward first before you label If you’ve got issues with someone. You might ask a trusted coworker or two if they see things as you do. Ask if they feel that your attitude is unwarranted or if you have contributed to problems.

Don’t judge their opinions. Just listen and accept whatever they say, even if you don’t agree. This goes for managers as well as frontliners. Labels are often inaccurate and unfair. Avoid them. The ultimate goal is to solve problems, restore relationships, and to get back on track.

The flat out truth

I remember a time when it took quite a disagreement to drive a wedge between people. Today, it takes little or nothing. People used to have “words” with each other, then more or less cooled off and it was all forgotten. We had the ability to get over things. Now, people who don’t see things as we do might be labeled as clueless, fools, morons, losers and on it goes.

This happens in Guam, too.

Our little tropical paradise island isn’t immune to cold things happening on the job. In my training on-island I’ve discovered situations where a few words, spoken in frustration, have led to workers essentially stonewalling each other for years.

To learn how to bring the powerful values in this post to your organization, click here.

Managers are called idiots or worse over giving some fundamental correction or counseling. Frontliners get the same label because they spend too much time on their smartphone or don’t share the same work habits.

If you don't like someone's behavior that's okay. Separate that from the person because labeling can be destructive and long lasting.

We all need to take ourselves a whole lot less seriously, and just give others a break.

​Read Jerry Roberts' business and workplace commentaries​ in his column, The Work Zone, appear​ing each Tuesday in the Guam Daily Post.