Label Blindness – When You Become Trapped By Your Title

Posted on September 17, 2013

Label BlindnessHave 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, 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 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 asses 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 other 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 effected by it? What solutions do you find useful?