As a favor to a friend, I accepted a short-term contract project for my former employer. My desk was right next to Debbie’s. In addition to her normal executive assistant responsibilities, Debbie was asked to help me get whatever I needed.
Debbie and I spent the first day getting to know each other. Since I needed to rely on her for certain things, it was critical that we started out on the right foot. On the second day she seemed especially friendly. She even asked if I had time to help her with a special project.
The following morning I met with the executive who contracted with me. At the end of our meeting, I confirmed that it was OK to invest a little time in helping Debbie with her project. Later that day Debbie and I were talking and I said, “Oh by the way, Roberta gave the go ahead for me to help you with that project, so feel free to pile it on”.
Suddenly, the friendliness in her face turned into a steel stare. “I asked you that in confidence!” she sneered as she jerked herself closer to her desk. “Debbie, I didn’t know that your request was confidential. The company is paying me a lot of money to be here. I needed to make sure that they want me to spend my time on this. Help me understand why you’re so upset,” I pleaded. “Never mind, I can’t trust you!” she snipped.
Debbie never spoke more than a few words to me again. In fact, she went as far as meeting with the executive who hired me to make sure her feelings were known.
In a heartbeat, Debbie labeled me as untrustworthy. And to make matters worse, she proceeded to make her case with other people. Fortunately, I had years of history with this company. If I hadn’t, Debbie’s baseless snap judgment could have damaged my reputation.
Even though none of us likes to be labeled or stereotyped, the truth is we all do it in one way or another. Our brain processes more efficiently when it can reference a label it already knows how to handle. It stores the meaning of the label for quick access later. The trouble is that our brains go on automatic pilot and without realizing it we react to people or situations without thinking. And sometimes those automatic reactions are inappropriate, incorrect, unfair, and even damaging.
When I was young and foolish, I labeled a colleague “airhead”. At the time, I thought it described her…and besides it made people laugh. One day she called for someone else in the office. “Carolyn, the airhead is on the phone for you” I bellowed across the room. What I didn’t realize was that the caller heard me. Rightfully so, she felt hurt and disrespected. Before I knew it her boss was in my boss’s office. I learned a very good lesson that day.
What about you? Is it time for you to rethink the labels you use for people?
The next time you catch yourself tagging a person with a label, stop and ask yourself these questions:
- Does this label inspire or does it undermine?
- If the other person heard it, would I be proud or would I be embarrassed?
- How would I feel if I knew someone used this label to describe me?
Chances are we’re never going to totally overcome the habit of labeling people. But with a little thought and discipline, we can choose to use them wisely.
Share your thoughts on labeling people.