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.

Managing from One Foot Away

A recent interaction with another coach affirmed for me the wisdom of “Praise in Public, Correct in Private” and confirmed for me how personal an experience it is for anyone to receive criticism, correction or discipline from a leader, manager, coach or in this case a fitness instructor.

It’s this simple, when I’m corrected in public I feel rebuked and when it’s done one-to-one I feel encouraged.

As part of my belief in Training Ugly and getting out of my comfort zone, I take a weekly TRX class at the local rec centre.  TRX stands for Total Resistance eXercise and it’s a suspension training system that relies entirely on your own body weight to provide resistance. It’s not easy to master and after a year of classes, it continues to challenge my limits each week.

Our instructor preaches form over speed and corrects posture and position as she walks through the room.  With music playing and many other bodies planking, pulling and squatting, sometimes that correction comes in a shout from across the room and sometimes it comes from 1 foot away.

It’s amazing how the correction from afar feels like stinging, personal criticism.  It’s the affect of the audience.  Most people are OK with an expert correcting us, but not OK with other people knowing our weaknesses.  Like the first tee in golf, we feel like everyone is watching and critiquing us.  They are not, of course, and are likely too focused on their own posture or position to be worried about the tall guy in the corner not lunging correctly.

While correction stings from long distance, from 1 foot it feels collaborative and inspirational.  Like we are working toward a common goal and the small correction is a missing piece.  Many of my personal “Aha” moments in the weekly TRX class are from the softly spoken comment, suggestion or correction. From one foot I am thinking about the message and not how it was delivered or perceived in the room.

The same applies for managers that are delivering feedback.

If you can create an environment where the receiver feels the information is being shared with collaborative intent for their benefit, it’s more likely the message will be understood and acted upon.

Even disciplinary meetings should be delivered in this way.  The higher the stakes for the individual on your team – and a meeting that could lead to termination is as high as it gets – the more important it is for the manager to create a safe and personal environment.  This gives you the best chance for the message and proposed corrective action to be heard and not get lost in the emotion that the person is feeling.

So move a little closer, don’t be shy.

Should a Good Manager Take Criticism Personally?

Do any of us take criticism well?

For me, I expect to be able to take it better than I do.  I know that it’s needed and important to my growth as a person and in my career.  I know that it’s important that my decisions and behaviours are course corrected when necessary by someone who I like and trust.  Sometimes that’s my boss.  Sometimes it’s a friend.

But criticism still hurts because it’s personal.

It doesn’t matter that it’s delivered professionally and compassionately and privately by someone that I trust. It’s a rebuke of my behaviour and that is personal.

And that’s OK.

I am going to refer to Trevor Regan‘s   post called “Choose the Wild” quite a bit here, as much of what he has to say is relevant to taking criticism.  So please read his post and watch the video at the end as I cannot do him justice with my paraphrasing.

If you live in a world where no one criticizes you, you are a tiger living in a zoo.  All safe and easy. There is no struggle. In fact, you are hiding from the struggle, the fear and the failure that a jungle tiger lives with every day.

In the world of the mid-level manager, the fear of criticism and the failure it represents is one of the scariest things you will experience in the workplace jungle.  Because that project, that sale, that event, that new product is a reflection of you and if it fails, you fail.  And failure is very personal.

But it’s also part of the jungle life.  You know who never fails?  The zoo tiger.  The manager who does the minimum to keep his job.  The guy who says the right things and performs in front of the big boss but checks out with everyone else.  He’s not growing his team, pushing out new products, hunting for new clients or volunteering for a new project.  He’s hiding in his comfort zone where there is no chance he will be criticized or fail.

So if you’ve chosen to be the jungle tiger, how should you deal with criticism?

Take a moment to acknowledge the failure and to take it personally.

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That’s right, I want you to take it personally in whatever form that is for you and give it time to hurt.  I encourage you to take criticism personally because you are a person and not a cog in a machine.  If you care about your work, criticism should sting a little and hurt your pride.  In the moment, you need to acknowledge the failure and own it.

For me, taking it personally means calling the boss names under my breath and challenging their intelligence as I talk to myself on the drive home.  I think about the running list of petty grievances that I have with the world.  And I give myself time, usually until the next day, to let it sink in.

As a manager, remember how personal criticism is when delivering it to someone on your team and do it professionally, compassionately and privately.  Give them space to take it personally, even if that means they have to leave the office.  If you were in their shoes, you’d appreciate the understanding and so will they.

If someone doesn’t take it personally, that will tell you something as well.  Start to see if other signs of a zoo tiger are present in that person – hiding, being checked out, performing, or making excuses.  It might be time to force the cage open and drop them into the wild.  Or lend them to another zoo.

After you have given yourself time to take it personally, then get over it and start moving forward again.  Once you’ve made the pitch, launched the product or started manufacturing, it’s all out there with your name on it and it won’t be perfect.  Recognize that criticism and failure are part of being in the jungle.  Acknowledge the intent behind the criticism and make the changes suggested.  Fix the problem.  Go to version 1.1.

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The experience will have made you better and next time, because there’s always a next time in the jungle, the critics will be fewer and the failures will be minor.  And you will be ready for the next challenge.

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