Labels can be helpful. It’s nice to now what’s in a can we buy at the supermarket. It’s helpful to label a file folder that looks like the hundred others in the drawer. You find your luggage faster when it’s tagged with your name.
These labels don’t change. They’re true or false. When you open the can, you’ll find peaches. When you open your bag, your name on the label confirms that it’s yours.
But now suppose you’re a new manager who inherits a team. You get files with background info on each person. Sally’s folder is marked “Smart.” Drew’s folder is marked “Average.” Nancy’s folder is marked “Over 60.” Tim’s folder is marked, “Highly creative.”
What’s likely to happen six months from now?
Sally will keep demonstrating how smart she is. She’ll solve problems and write reports that get to the core of the issue.
Drew will melt away in the background; he won’t be recognized with promotions or raises and if you have to choose someone for a layoff, he’ll be gone.
Nancy will work more slowly and hesitate to embrace technology.
And Tim will come up with out-of-the-box solutions, drawings, videos from his well-decorated cubicle.
Why are we not surprised?
Research – LOTS of research – shows that we react strongly to labels for ourselves and for other people. You’ve probably heard the story about the teacher who was given a list of students and their IQs. Sure enough, by the end of the term, observers found a strong correlation … except that those numbers were not IQs. They were the students’ locker numbers.
Variations of this story can be found in the annals of psychology.
Labels are especially damaging to career changers. You might have been described as smart and creative. You assume you can take on new roles and jump into new careers seamlessly.
Alternatively, you might be described as someone who pays too much attention to detail, fails to be aware of others’ feelings or slow to adjust to new environments. These labels can hold you back needlessly.
(1) Labels can be inaccurate: Test scores aren’t infallible and sometimes tests simply get misinterpreted or mixed up. You might be judged by someone who holds bizarre standards or outdated stereotypes. Even medical tests have a gray area; with an inaccurate physical or mental diagnosis can have life-changing consequences.
(2) Labels are powerful. Once you accept a label, it’s hard to undo the damage. As you talk about yourself, listen for signs that you may be labeling yourself based on something that’s no longer relevant. .
(3) Others will assume you behave consistently with labels they assign to you. If you’re being labeled inaccurately, it’s important to create a new label or more on to a place where the label won’t follow you. “Career death by label” happens all the time.
(4) Rather than talk to yourself about your label, describe yourself by behaviors. What does it mean to be lazy? Maybe you don’t like to work any more than you have to, so you look for ways to work smarter not harder. Do you miss deadlines? You might say, “I take longer than some people to write reports but I’m very fast at putting a new team together.”
Of course you won’t use these sentences at a job interview or in any interactions with colleagues, bosses or anyone who could influence your career. When you’re “on,” use your game face.
(5) Recognize how easily you can accept a label even if it’s false or bizarre. Studies show that we tend to agree with assessments that are presented as objective; that’s one reason personality test scores and fortune telling “predictions” seem to be accurate.
Try this experiment …
Next time you’re labeled as a type, such as an INTJ or a Scorpio with Leo rising, write out the description and make copies. Give five people a “test” and then hand them this description. As you give everyone the same description, you’ll find that almost everyone says, “Wow! You nailed it.”
Choose your labels
Finally, you can label yourself as “successful” and “smart” as a motivator. You made a mistake? It’s a detour on your journey to success. You made a bad decision? You’re training your mind for something greater.
But don’t put too much stock in those labels either. They can backfire. You might hear yourself saying, “If I’m so smart, why did I do something so dumb?” And now you’re on a new roll.