Executive Master of Leadership Blog

How Labeling People Negatively Affects Your Ability to Lead

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 26, 2019 8:49:00 AM / by Lorraine Aguilar

We recently asked Lorraine Aguilar, Chief Engagement Officer at Working Harmony, about how leaders can do better in the workplace. This is part 1 of 3.



One of the mindfulness practices that we use to be effective leaders is to be aware of when we're unconsciously labeling people. And that's hard to do because workplace culture is full of labels, both positive ones as well as negative ones: loner, gossip, high-achiever, butt-kisser, attention-grabber, critic, lazy, etc.

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Effects of Labeling People

How do we free ourselves of labels? And why is this important? To answer that question, think about your own experience. Has anyone ever labeled you in a way that you didn't appreciate?

That's like putting you in a box, where people don't see you as you are or for your good intentions, and instead, make judgments. Not only do judgments not feel good, but they hold us back from having an effective team, an effective organization, and from being an effective leader.

An Example of LabelingLorraineAguilar-quote-03

Just a little while ago, I heard a leader telling me a story about working with a difficult employee.

Think about that. Difficult employee. Is that a judgment or is that an observation? So, just by labeling someone a difficult employee they’ve already set the tone that this person as a problem, versus the behavior as a problem.


How do we stop labeling people?

This is not about beating ourselves up and criticizing ourselves; it is about being effective. How can we twist this in a way that not only frees that person of a label without freeing them from accountability? Notice, we want empathy, but we also want accountability. How do we have both?

Instead of labeling that person as a difficult person, what if I own my judgment? This is the accountability piece.

I'm judging. Let me be accountable and own it. So instead of saying, "This is a difficult person," I can show more accountability and awareness by saying, "I have difficulty with this person." Do you see the shift? It's subtle, but it's powerful. It creates ownership, it creates less blame, and an organization with less blame is always a better place.

Imagine if I'm actually in a performance discussion with this person, maybe a performance evaluation, or some high-stakes, difficult conversation. Imagine how much more effective I'll be at restoring healthier behaviors if instead of saying, "You know, you've been kind of difficult lately," (causing defensiveness, blame, and triggers), you say "I've been having some difficulty trying to understand you," or, "It's been difficult for me working with you, and here's where I'm struggling."

By taking ownership of my experience instead of blaming and labeling, it can open up a lot more creative solutions and possibilities and minimize the kind of defensiveness, shutdown, resistance, and maybe even sabotage that can come when someone is feeling attacked. 

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Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership Skills, Communication

Lorraine Aguilar

Written by Lorraine Aguilar

Lorraine Aguilar is the Chief Engagement Officer of Working Harmony. Aguilar is a Leadership Development Consultant and Certified Trainer in Nonviolent Communication in California.

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