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Label things, not people (part two…)

February 14, 2014

By Mark Hannum

This is the second post by Mark Hannum about the problems labels can cause in the workplace. Click here to read part one.—Ed.

There’s a wonderful, long-running Off-Broadway play called I Love You. You’re Perfect. Now Change. It’s about marriage and the tinkering we all have a tendency to try with our partners. It makes the point, with humor, that we all try to figure people out.

But it’s true. We put labels on people. We put them in a “box.” Then we define them and their thinking according to our label, our definition. Anyone who has experienced this “box” will agree, being put in a “box” leads to tremendous frustration. This creates a number of “problems.”

The first occurs when the world or the business context changes (and they always will) and our peers and/or leaders don’t. Another problem occurs when our peers and leaders change or drift in the wrong direction. Third, we have a different problem when the world stays relatively status quo, but our peers and leaders change. They decide they want to do something different or pursue some different path in life.

It’s interesting how we label these types of change as “problems.” In any relationship between two people or between an organization and a person, change is a given. Change is not a threat, it’s an integral part of a healthy relationship. The friendships that start in childhood and last a lifetime can be the richest experiences in life. These are the friendships that experience the most amount of change. They deepen and mature over time.

The problem with labeling, mind reading, and defining others is the incorrect assumption that the relationship between yourself and the organization shouldn’t change. This is exactly the opposite of how a systems thinker approaches the issue. What we all want is for our relationships with our peers and colleagues to deepen and mature. What we all want is for our relationship with the organization we work for to deepen and mature.

We don’t want to be put in a box.

With that in mind, here are some simple, yet powerful guidelines for deepening your relationships with your peers and with your organization:

1. Spend time with your peers. Devote time to understanding and knowing who they are, what they value, what they want to be. And stop telling them how they need to be in order to suit you. The same goes for your organization. Stop telling your organization what it needs to do to suit you. Suit yourself.

2. Learn. Ask questions. Learn about the heroes in the organization. Learn the history. Learn the context. Learn the meaning of things. Figure out the dynamics of how things work. And take the time to learn about your colleagues. Don’t close down and be shallow. Appreciate the individuals you work with and the organization for what they are―dynamic and changing.

3. Be honest. Be honest with your peers and with yourself about everything. Don’t be cruel or tactless in the process. Share your feelings without becoming a burden or a drama queen.

4. Listen. Remember that old expression that you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in the same proportion. Part of listening is remembering. Listen to others but also listen to your memories. Listen to your everyday life: it’s the easiest part of your life to forget.

5. Embrace change. An old mentor once told me, “On the day you cease to change, you cease to live.” Your relationships must change with time. Your relationship with your organization must change over time. It’s not a problem, it’s healthy.

6. Step back. Take the time to reflect and see the big picture. I was taught the word “discernment” for this―the deep reflection to truly understand what you want in life and work. When you understand and can discern what you want, you can see others more clearly.

The relationships with your spouse, your children, your friends, along with your colleagues and your organization will change over your lifetime. It can happen naturally, almost easily, and feel very rich. It can also feel difficult and chore-like at times. You may not always get your desired result, but it’s during these times when it’s so important to get to know others more deeply, and to let others come to know you more deeply as well.

Deep, meaningful relationships are what make work and life so rewarding. And following these simple guidelines will help all of your relationships deepen and mature. So, let’s hear it. What would you add to this list?

More about Mark

Mark Hannum has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions.

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