Label Blindness – When You Become Trapped By Your Title

Have you ever worked with someone and thought, that guy is brilliant, I wonder where he’ll end up? Only to find out later that the person has been sitting in the same low-level position for years. Have you ever found yourself struggling for recognition and getting no response or acknowledgement of your efforts?  It never fails to amaze me when talent goes to waste, so I rarely stay quiet when I see it in play. I have argued with a boss to give one of my reports a raise because they were working well above their pay grade, while poorer performers were making more money. I have suggested to others that they would lose talent if they didn’t do something to acknowledge the contributions of loyal employees.

Sometimes circumstances mean that there simply isn’t a tangible way to thank staff members, either there’s no money, no way to give a promotion or change their title and so while they are verbally thanked, they get no other compensation for their efforts.

Then there are those occasions when a special kind of blindness happens that makes bosses, colleagues and even school systems unable to see a true performance or recognize intelligence. Scott Barry Kaufman speaks about this challenge in his book Ungifted. In it, he explores some of the challenges we face when we place labels on people.   What those labels do to our ability to assess intelligence and performance and how we can stifle ourselves by not looking past the label. Labels are handy and they help us to navigate, but they can also blind us to potential and deafen us to cries for help.

Barry challenges traditional intelligence assessment tools and looks at an array of other indicators that emphasize the importance of adaptation to task demands as the essence of intelligent functioning. More importantly for this discussion, he looks at personal goals and passion.  These can have a tremendous influence on performance.

When I argued with that old boss to recognize the contribution of a colleague his initial response was, she’s an assistant, she can’t make the same money as an executive assistant.  When I asked him to break down the responsibilities of the two titles and demonstrated that not only was my assistant performing similar tasks as an executive assistant, but in fact was performing beyond them he eventually had to relent and give her a raise, but he was reluctant.  She was by far more engaged, she enjoyed her work, she was not phased by the more mundane aspects of the job because they were part of the bigger challenge. The same could not be said about her colleagues.  In fact, the very behaviours that marked her as superior were spurned by her colleagues as “beneath them”. She easily our performed them. But her title made everyone blind to what the collective impact of her work was. So while titles seem like the least of the things you should worry about, they can have a profound and stifling effect on your career progress.

When labels become the predominant way you assess employee value it is not only limiting for the employee but can be devastating for an organization.  To put it bluntly, it’s a morale killer.  It sends a message to employees that they need not try if they don’t have the right title. It also gags those with the title who need help. Just as we can develop biases that make it impossible for us to see capacity.  We can also create unrealistic expectations because someone has a title, degree or another label. When that person needs additional support, they can feel pressured not to ask for it because expectations are so high.

The real challenge with using titles to define how we see people is that they make it impossible for us to actually see the person.  A label reflects a time and place, a specific set of circumstances and their outcome.  Labels rarely capture the essence of a person, their will, creativity or drive.  When I’m passionate about something and fully engaged, I show a dedication and focus that bears little to no resemblance to me when I’m uninterested or unimpressed.

There are a couple of things that you can do to avoid label blindness.

As an employee:

  • Learn to speak up for yourself. There are no magic job fairies.  It’s up to the employees to ask for that raise, promotion or recognition.
  • Build the ask into regular negotiations.  Set clear goals for yourself with your boss and when you meet them, ask for recognition in a form that suits you. It may seem like a hard thing to do, but it gets easier with time.
  • If despite your best efforts you’re still not recognized for your contribution then you have a few choices.  Accept it, be persistent or move on to another job.  Waiting too long rarely pays for itself and can lead to frustration, disappointment and disengagement.

As an employer or supervisor:

  • Remember that you hire the whole person not just the skills needed for the job that is currently open.
  • Employee resumes should be reviewed on an annual basis but more importantly, a fair and mutually established performance review with metrics should be used as well.  Consider compensation.  What can you do to acknowledge good performance?
  • If they are performing above their grade at your request, you need to acknowledge that work in some way or you will pay the high cost of turnover.

Have you ever had label blindness or been affected by it? What solutions do you find useful?


0 responses to “Label Blindness – When You Become Trapped By Your Title

  • In my realm of experience, the label of teacher does not begin to convey the wide array of tasks the job includes. Over time, I felt the label did not accurately reflect all that I did or was capable of doing. I not only taught my classes, headed (the tiny) English department, but also sat on a few school improvement committees. Some arguments for improving the profession entail making it possible for some teaches to be hybrid teachers who do not spend the entire day in the classroom, but can spend half of their day observing and mentoring others, etc. But no. A teacher gets to be labeled by the catch-all “teacher” along with how many years of experience they have. I worked my butt off in comparison to many others, and I was consistently immersed in reading about the profession and improving my practices. All that hard work, and no recognition on paper or with a pay bump. It would be helpful is teachers could be guided in choosing career tracks that suited their strengths, i.e. coaching, mentoring, grant writing, etc.

    • You know I have never understood how we deal with teacher performance. I’ve had teachers who went above and beyond and I’ve had teachers who were absent and behind and yet their pay in no way reflected performance. Given the importance of the tasks they are set with you’d think we’d want to put at least as much effort into looking at and rewarding high achievers as we do into trying to manage every minute of class time…or banning books.

      The idea of allowing teachers to actually choose the paths that suited their strengths seems so obvious that it staggers the mind that we force it to work in any other way.

  • I’m not a big fan of labels but I can see how they would be useful in the business world (of course only if they are used properly).

    • I tend to think of labels as a necessary evil. They help us avoid asking the technology guy questions about human resources, but they have a strange way of getting in the way at times.

  • This is an excellent article! It’s a message that needs to be heard but probably won’t be by those who need to hear it. I come from a large corporate culture and believe me I know exactly what you are saying. Well done! 🙂

    • Thanks Cheryl. Label blindness is a pet peeve of mine. It isn’t even about me personally, its the damage I see when valuable staff are overlooked or go without thanks because of preconceived notions associated with titles.

  • I have experienced this as I start my freelance work in social media management, but also in any number of temporary positions I have held. Repeatedly, I find that these positions are perceived entirely differently to the workload, and varied skills required to make for a smooth and efficient continuum.

    My solution is something I’m currently working on, starting with acknowledging my inherent value, with or without “work” to define it for others. It’s something that is often overlooked. Great post, Debra.

    • Natasha you raise important points, the way we define ourselves and the way we value ourselves as a consequence has to be broader than through the narrow focus of a job. If you can only see yourself in the context of your work, what do you do when that work changes or ends?

      As for people’s perceptions of social media, I have accepted that as a professional communicator I will always have to explain that the tools of communications are only as useful as the person wielding them. Unfortunately, the better you are at what you do the simpler it looks to people who don’t do it.

  • Well, you really nail it here, Debra! A title can be like a sentence, and limit your potential for growth – personally and professionally. It’s a perception, and we all know perception is not the same as reality. But here’s a great story for you – I once worked with a small, non-profit organization that consisted of about a dozen people. And with the exception of the receptionist and the accountant, they were all “managers” of their departments. That’s because they all frequently had to deal with the government, and it was the only way the bureaucrats would respond to their calls!

    • That is hilarious, if a bit sad. I’ve had people who report to me change their titles because they were dealing with government, but I thought we were the only ones who did that! 🙂

  • I was the “low man on the totem pole” because of my job title, even though I had been their longest and knew how to do everyone else’s job (filled in job vacancies many, many times). In the end, I took all the skills I have learned and used them to create my own “dream job” as a self-employed writer.

    We can’t always control the actions of others, but we can always choose how we respond!

    • Your experience is the perfect example of why clinging too tightly to labels not only does harm to the employee but also to the organization. When you left, not only did you take a valuable position that filled numerous roles, you also took all of your corporate knowledge. I’m glad for you though, because in the end you’re doing what you love and putting all of that knowledge to work for someone who deserves and appreciates it, YOU.

  • I like your emphasis on fairness, equity and good morale — not just in this post on labels and job titles, but in your writing in general. While you don’t necessarily use the words “kindness” and “compassion”, I find you an excellent voice for those universal values. Interesting how embracing these often represents the best business decisions in the long run.

    • Thank you Alison, I really appreciate that. I was talking to a friend not long ago about the most persistent regret of the elderly and the dying and it’s not about what they got or didn’t get. The most common regret is that they wish they had been kinder, at least that’s the stat that stayed with me. I think that would be a truly horrible regret.

      Businesses built on a hunt and kill mindset will devour themselves and their people. If you can build a focus on treating everyone as you want to be treated, then you serve clients and employees better, the bottom line will follow. I’m not Pollyanna, but the costs associated with recruitment and lost customers speaks for itself.

  • Debra — how true that labels can be a straightjacket for employees. They are constricted by this label. The resourceful employees will assume responsibilities not in titles and, unfortunately, not always be recognized for their accomplishments. On the other hand, some employees are happy with the label. When they are asked to do something not within the label, they can say, “not my job!”

    • Great point Jeanette. Employees can definitely use the label to get out of doing all kinds of things, I may have pulled that card once or twice myself. 🙂 My biggest challenge is figuring out ways, on an ongoing basis, to ensure I’m not falling into the trap and looking for ways to get my colleagues to avoid it too. I don’t think you can adopt label-free workplaces, but there should be a way to not let labels become the defining description of you.

  • Love it! My favorite is the “There are no magic job fairies.” I try to teach my kids the importance of speaking up, and making friends but I had forgotten to tell them to speak up about their accomplishments, to not be shy or modest about them, but rather proud and to the right person a little boastful. Many times the person in position does not see it because they are not looking for it.

    Great article, thanks.

    • Thanks Joanne. Do encourage your kids to showcase their accomplishments. Our culture is so conflicted on that one. We reward people who toot their own horn, but we teach that modesty is best. The difference between being perceived as a leader or a follower is often based on nothing more than how good you are at speaking up.

  • jbutler1914 says:
    September 17, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    I’m not a fan of labels at all. I have seen labels get great co-workers ignored by other ones.

    • It’s too bad when something intended to bring clarity creates confusion and disengagement instead. The thing is, it isn’t the labels, it’s that people stop thinking and analysing once they see them.

  • For lack of better words, labels piss me off. I see them used inappropriately in schools, and as a result they carry over to a persons self perception when they move on in life. It drives me nuts to see a person speak up in a meeting, and not be heard because their title is not at a certain level.

    Great post Debra! Thank you for sharing!

    • I find what labels do in school particularly disturbing because they are being attached when so much of a person is still forming. Children take those titles seriously and they can wear them well into their adult years.

  • The labels and what they pigeon hole you into are one of the many reasons that I am happy to be out of places that work like that. As it is right now, the only labels I have to worry about are the ones my wife gives me (Pool boy, personal chef, etc…)

    • Pigeon hole is a great expression for describing what happens. People are forced into the confined space created by the title. I think you’re living the good life with your titles, my husband gets errand boy and handy man. 🙂

  • The sad thing is that when we advertise for a job position we give it a label. I agree with your post but there is another side. Sometimes we give labels to people that really don’t fit what they really can do. I gave one of my employees the position of manager and paid that went with it. Sadly to say she is not management material. When I asked her what did she think she brought to the table, and could she manage. It was a long list and she thought she could manage. Of all my employees, I get the most compliments about her. They usually are she doesn’t have people skills. I think alot boils down to one’s own perception of the so called label.

    • That is brutal Arleen. One of the essential things a manager does is manage people. I think its a case of someone chasing a title and not really understanding what it’s supposed to represent in terms of skills.

  • Excellent article Debra and when I was working in the corporate world it used to amuse me how some focused on the title rather than results. In one company when I was head of marketing my Product Managers were perceived and given the remuneration equivalent to a lower level than their sales equivalent. So I changed their responsibilities and with the help of HR was able to increase their pay as well as how they were perceived.

    • Thanks Susan. It took me ages to figure out why people were so preoccupied with their titles, once I did, I couldn’t believe it. It’s not just that it’s inefficient for the business, it can do serious damage, but I guess we can’t go by, “Thing One” and “Thing Two”. 🙂

  • This is an absolutely excellent post, Debra. One that I could really relate to on several levels.

    Firstly, when I left my corporate job after 18 years and embarked on my freelance career, I had to create an entirely new identity. I had always been “Doreen from MPIC.” Now I was Doreen, freelance writer with no proven track record. It took a long time before I could prove to myself that I indeed was a professional freelance writer, and that I should be fairly compensated and acknowledged for my abilities in that role.

    But the problems of labelling were very real throughout the corporate environment in which I had worked. People were pigeon holed and many capable people were overlooked because of the formal roles they filled and the titles they held. Because we were unionized, it was difficult to get around that. I’m so glad I now work independently and only have my own standards to meet.

    • Thank you Doreen. It’s too bad that something intended to facilitate communications becomes such a hindrance to it. Our culture loves to put things and people in tidy little places. It makes navigation easier but also blinds us to a lot of what’s around us. We even do it to ourselves, you noted that you had to convince yourself that you were a professional freelancer.

  • Great post. Titles do open doors, but are they the ones you want to go through? There are many individuals out there with titles that would make your head spin. Nice to be addressed by your title, but if it does you no good, then what? Titles can also be your worst enemy, depending on how you deal with the new found power. When titles are bestowed on those who are not able to deal with responsibilities totally foreign to them, chaos will break out, as these once mellow ones, become, Jekyll and Hyde. Who in the world would want to be associated with the likes of these individuals? Supervisors should be attentive to those deserving ones, who have demonstrated the ability to excel, contribute to the business, and will continue being, team players,” no matter in what capacity they will operate. Blessings.

    • Thank you. If your interests, objectives, capacity and title all line up its a very nice place to be, but your right, when it does you no good because it’s not aligned with your interests or objectives, then only chaos can follow. People will sometimes fight for a certain position only to find that they don’t want it once they get it. The other challenge I see is when a title is imbued with so many expectations that no one individual could ever manage it, then real trouble follows.

  • I have never thought of this angle in terms of job titles – maybe because i myself have never been in this situation (or i have forgotten? i am freelancer for years now where there are no titles, really). Thnaks for the eye-opening post, Debra – now i do see how one can be trapped by their job title and go unnoticed and under-appreciated for it. And of course, i can see the other side of the coin, too – I totally get what Jacqueline explained about her VP title and how it opens doors for her.

    Excellent post, Debra! Sending you some social media love right away 🙂

    • I see a lot of freedom with a freelance position. While I imagine it can be difficult, it also frees you from the internal politics that can make working in an a organization tiresome. Titles should be convenient indicators, not traps.

  • Well, we have titles here but they’re not really used internally. I was hired as “Purchasing Manager.” I’m the primary person answering the phones so I’m also Receptionist and Sales Rep. Then, when we started selling our old inventory on eBay I became a Shipping Clerk. And finally I’ve become the primary IT for the PCs (our owner is a Mac lover and is clueless about PCs), even to the point that I picked out a setup for two computers last year. So it’s not possible to become defined by my title here…my responsibilities are ever changing.

    • I was laughing as I read the range and variation in roles your different hats reflected. You are fortunate that your job has not lead to the kinds of restraints that are so often evident in other organizations. I also have to wonder how well regarded you are by your boss. Your flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of the organization show a high level of adaptability and dedication, I hope your boss appreciates what you bring to the table.

      • Oh, I forgot to add Researcher to my roles. Whenever he wants information that he chooses not to look for himself he asks me to do it because he knows I like looking up things online LOL

        I guess that’s the benefit of working for a small business….I know he appreciates what I do even though he doesn’t say anything at the time. How I know – he asks me to do it again and adds the financial benefits at the end of the year.

  • Another excellent post. Again something that women often overlook in themselves, but may speak up for a subordinate. In terms of titles, I agree! My co-workers were shocked and thought me a tad shoddy when i asked for a VP title. But when I pointed out to the owner of my firm that the title alone would open doors for me, he reluctantly agreed. It didn’t take long before he acknowledged that I probably couldn’t have brought in the national accounts that I did without the title!

    • So very, very true Jacqueline, great example. Titles do amazing things. You are the same person knocking on the door, but the title changes how you are perceived. I think we could all do with a course in a how to negotiate for ourselves. Unfortunately, we are not taught this in school and as your co-workers’ reaction reflects, attempts to show personal value often get frowned upon. The thing is, you have to decide if you are interested in succeeding at what you do or in accommodating perceptions that will not help you.

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