Labeling Co-Workers

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By Bill Kennedy - "He is always goofing off."
"She never gets it right."
"He's always late for meetings."

People get labeled: the office clown, the slacker, the flirt. My spider senses start to tingle whenever I hear the words "always" or "never" applied to someone else on the team. It usually indicates that an unsubstantiated accusation is about to follow. As quickly as I can, I steer the conversation into specifics:

  • What actually happened?
  • When was the last time it happened?
  • Is there any documentation?
  • Were other people involved?
  • What behavior do you want the other person to change?

As a young manager, I was put in charge of the accounting department after a downsizing. As part of the restructuring I promoted an older clerk so that a younger one reported to her. What I didn't know was that the two women didn't like each other, to the point that what had once been an uneasy truce turned into open warfare. I tried to solve the situation by working it out with both women in the same room. Big mistake! First there was a stony silence, then the accusations started to fly. I ended the meeting and sent the combatants back to their corners. In desperation, I appealed to my father for help. His advice was, "there are some problems you just can't solve." The problem eventually solved itself when the younger clerk quit.

What did I do wrong?

As I look back at the situation, I let it escalate to the point where neither party was willing to negotiate. If I had to do it again, I would talk to the people individually. I would get them to stop using labels and be specific by continually asking for more details. Instead of "that old [censored] is so controlling, she won't let me do my job", I would encourage something like "when I proposed we move to issuing payments once a week, I didn't get any response". Instead of "that young [censored] never gets anything right", I would want to hear "the last two times she reconciled accounts payable to the general ledger she left an unexplained difference." They might never have become friends, but maybe we could have preserved the uneasy truce.

Another place where you see labels is the press. The article's title was Lost boys: Are we raising a generation of Peter Pans? and it was based on the research of Dr. Leonard Sax. Dr. Sax identified five reasons why young men seem to lack motivation:

  • Video games. These addictive activities disengage boys from the world. Some young men even seem to prefer online porno to the prospect of sex with another human being.
  • Teaching methods. Girls develop intellectually up to two years ahead of boys. Boys in grade school are naturally rambunctious. They need ways to express their native energy. They are being taught to read and write too early. Their mostly female teachers prefer compliant, dutiful girls.
  • Prescription drugs. Hyperactive, frustrated boys are increasingly being medicated. This we all know. What Sax claims is that these drugs shrink the motivational centres of the brain and that the effect of this lasts years, well after these kids stop taking their meds. I hadn't heard this before but if it's true, it is truly frightening.
  • Endocrine disruptors. Chemicals from plastic bottles, canned food linings and some shampoos mimic natural estrogen, the female hormone. Boys' testosterone levels are half of what they were in their grandfathers' day. Also, their bones are significantly more brittle.
  • The devaluation of masculinity. Boys don't know how to become men. They no longer have appropriate rights of passage. Once Father Knows Best was the paternalistic model but now he has been replaced (and mocked) by a dopey Homer Simpson. Sax likes the old virtues of courage and temperance, with a good measure of intelligence.

These are all observations based on study. They are unbiased and objective. The writer of the article, however, leaps from these observations to the emotionally loaded label, Peter Pan. Let's say you read the above article and have a young man in your department who seems to fit the mold. Use the information, but resist the label. Your job is to help one person, not save a whole generation.

In my experience, when people behave irrationally, the reason is probably emotional. Viewed through their eyes, their behavior makes sense. As a manager, your job is to understand the situation as your team member sees it, even though you may disagree with him or her. As Stephen Covey says, "Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood."

  • The person who keeps making mistakes may feel they're stupid. Try walking them through the procedure and getting them to make their own notes instead of following material prepared by others. That will help you understand where the problem lies.
  • The person with no ambition may feel there is no hope of promotion. When reviewing their performance, try to give them a sense of where they could progress to from here.
  • The person who can't meet deadlines may feel overwhelmed. Help them learn to prioritize and to work with their supervisor when they have too much on their plate.

When your team feels understood, then you have the opportunity to show them your view, and you're well on your way to re-energizing the department.

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