Labels Change a Manager’s Expectations

Tall people in basketball can’t dribble.  I laugh when I heard this because it was a label that I heard all through high school as a tall guy playing on a good high school team.  While in my case it was true and I was better off playing down low with my back to the basket, I can see how this belief from a coach could limit the reps and take away the practice time of a player who wanted to be a better ball handler.  Magic Johnson is 6’9″ (pretty tall) and was a hall of fame point guard, so tall guys can dribble the basketball at an elite level.

Take this use of labels and apply it to the business world and we can see how labels change the expectation of the manager and the employee and have a big impact on the growth and development of our teams.

As a teenager, I worked at McDonald’s and from the first day, I worked in the kitchen.  Frying burgers and loading supplies from the storeroom – he is tall and strong and male, so keep him in the back. Had they asked, I would have chosen to work the counter and been in front of people all day.  I would have been awesome.  The label they applied put me in a storeroom with no way out.

Here is a discussion on the negative impact of labels, in this Train Ugly podcast on the Pygmalion effect with great examples from science, business, education, sports, and the military.

Consider these workplace labels (and their built-in limits to growth):

  • They are not a people person (so we won’t put them in front of the customer)
  • They are a quant (so they won’t be asked about theory)
  • They don’t know the new development language (so they can only maintain the old system, not build the new one)
  • They come from accounting (so they can’t be on the product team)
  • They are a star (so the sky is the limit)

These labels changed the manager’s expectation of an employee’s performance – limiting the growth of some team members and making special opportunities available to the star.  In the workplace, people are treated more favorably if their manager has higher performance expectations. 

You’ve heard the expression “I expect more from you” – which means I am treating you differently because I have higher expectations. 

Someone else on the team who has been labeled a “B” player or underachiever is not expected to behave or perform at the same high level.  As a manager, you are doing yourself and your team a disservice if you label too quickly.

I challenge you right now to review your team one by one and identify how you have “labeled” each person.  How would you treat that person differently if you replace the label with “star”?

Everyone is capable of growing and should be given the reps – an opportunity to practice the skills –  to become better.

Click here if you’d like to Pick My Brain for free about the impact of labeling in your team.

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