Label Me   You know when people start a conversation with, “I don’t want to gossip, but…”, and that serves as a prelude to some chin-wagging?

Well, I don’t want to judge but…

On my way to Sandton on the Gautrain I overheard (could not help it – he was shouting) a rather heated discussion between a middle manager(my guess) and one of his subordinates (also an educated guess), called Lawrence. After explaining to Lawrence that he is not in a position to make decisions and probably will never be, my fellow passenger – let’s call him Thomas – demanded to speak to another colleague and proceeded to tell him what a dimwit Lawrence is.

I’m always fascinated by our ability to place a label on someone else, treat the person according to that label, and then be utterly surprised – angry even – when the person actually lives up to our expectations!

Let’s, for a moment, give Thomas the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps this is the tenth time that Lawrence ignored an instruction or failed to deliver. Perhaps Thomas is tired of cleaning up after Lawrence. Perhaps if we had met Lawrence we would pity Thomas and the rest of his competent team for having to drag along such a dimwit …

Even as I type that last sentence, I know this is not true.  I saw Thomas’ body language throughout the whole incident. This was not just a frustrated manager reaching the end of his tether with a serial-erring subordinate. This was an arrogant young man who clearly lacked emotional intelligence and had made up his mind that Lawrence will amount to nothing and should be reminded of that. Publically.

One of the basic indicators of emotional intelligence is an awareness of how your own moods and feelings affect other people.  In this instance, Thomas didn’t seem to care that he was upsetting everyone that was trapped in the train car with him; unlike Lawrence, we couldn’t simply walk away from the conversation.    Besides the lack of interpersonal savvy – we also need to question Thomas’ professional know-how, as he was showcasing the organisation’s management culture in his company branded tie, shirt and jacket.

Thomas could have opted to discuss the issue at the office (thereby also extending some mercy to his fellow passengers), giving himself time to cool down and consider whatever the crisis was within the proper context. He could have tried to understand why Lawrence made the decisions he did and either corrected Lawrence’s thinking or, if this was a repeat offence, follow the proper human resources procedure. Good leaders know they must sometimes make the tough decision to let go of someone who is harming the team or sustainability of the company – but there are clearly defined procedures for doing this to ensure it is fair and, if handled correctly, human dignity is respected.

Labeling someone as a dimwit or predicting that this person will never amount to anything is never productive. It touches the core of the person and once that person starts believing that his identity is wrapped up in that label, how on earth will he ever reach his potential or contribute positively?

I have decided to spend some time thinking about the labels I’ve placed on people without considering how my treatment of them has contributed to those labels seeming valid. I suspect this will not be a pleasurable exercise but one that will hopefully leave me a little wiser. I should probably start with Thomas…

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