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Label things, not people

February 12, 2014

By Mark Hannum

Early in my career, I worked with a leadership survey instrument that divided people’s personalities into one of four major types and one of four subtypes. I thought the instrument was clever and I totally bought in to its usefulness.

When I went out to visit clients and customers, I immediately saw what “type” they were and dealt with them accordingly. People would often ask me what “type” I saw them as, and I was seldom wrong. I became an expert in “types,” and one of the organizations where I taught the instrument eventually hired me full-time. I was very thankful for the opportunity, and since I knew so much about the organization and its people, I knew I could be valuable.

It turns out that I was due for a rude awakening. On day one, I walked into a discussion about a potential promotion. Two individuals were being discussed: the first was one type—a driver; the other was another—an amiable.

The driver was the leadership team’s choice simply because he was a driver, and the “conversation” went something like this: “He’s a driver. He’s so action-oriented. He’ll take on the problems. He always gets it done. He’s so high energy.” But the fact was the leadership team was actually describing the qualities of a driver and then attributing those qualities to the individual simply because his survey results stated he was a driver.

The input had become an output which had then become an input.

Meanwhile, the other candidate—the amiable—looked like the better choice. He had more experience handling the issues in the group. His skills were impressive, and his results were incomparable. He had a record of creativity. And he’d worked for, or with, every major player in the company. I mentioned all of this, but the group still went with the driver. In fact, I lost this argument 20 times in the first year. Leadership was going to promote drivers. That’s it. Every other type was secondary.

It was evident to more than just me that only drivers were getting hired and promoted. Eerily, people who I knew had completed the survey and had come out as “amiable-amiables” started describing themselves as “driver-amiables.”

In this organization, your type was your label. It told people how you thought, how you behaved, what you valued, and what you would or wouldn’t accomplish. It even gave people permission to tell others what they thought about you…without asking them. Although it took me another year, I left that company. As an “analytical-amiable” I knew I had no chance even though I never told anyone my type!

When I interviewed with my future employer, I spent the day with several people. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed their company. I was heartened by how much they invited me in to their conversation. I had gone to an industrial-organizational psychologist before the visit as a “gate” to my being hired. None of this was ever mentioned. When I was finally hired and brought on board, I had a meeting with the man who ran human resources and asked him about my visit to the psychologist and how I had done. His response was “I guess you passed. You’re here.” I was taken aback at his response. He saw my surprise.  “What were you thinking?” he said.

I responded with an incredulous “I can’t believe you put me through that and didn’t use the information to make your decision.”

“We label cans here, not people,” he said. “In a couple of months, we will review all of that with you. For now, all we know is that you exceeded our threshold. We’ll send you back to Doc in six months or so and the two of you will have a nice chat about how you are doing here.”

I was still incredulous. “You mean you won’t look at the psychologist’s report? Are you saying that if I hire someone, all I will get is a pass/fail from the psychologist?”

He looked at me kindly, almost grandfatherly and said, “We label cans here, not people. We don’t read each others’ minds. We don’t put people in boxes that they can’t ever get out of. We don’t tell others what they think. We try to believe that everyone we hire here is a whole, healthy, creative human being capable of being better tomorrow than they were today.”

I couldn’t let him see it, but after what I had just experienced at my previous company, I almost wanted to cry. I wanted to be a part of this organization. He saw it in spite of my attempts to hide it. For the next twelve years that I worked there, I never felt more challenged, more engaged, more valued, and more needed. I never had a box that I had to escape from. No one ever told me “how I was.” No one used my personality attributes as weapons against me. I did things that still astound me. I did things that should have never been entrusted to me! I still think of it as the best working experience I’ve ever had. We were all friends working together to accomplish a mission. All of us were 100% certain of one thing: we were all capable. We had all passed!

Do you see people or do you see labels?

More about Mark

Hannum_MarkMark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organization 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. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.

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