Labels at work

24 May 2016 by Sarah Leembruggen.

Labels are useful for processing and organising objects, animals, brands, and all sorts of other information we receive, but when it comes to labeling people, it’s different. If you’re given a label at work, based on someone else’s perception of you, that is negative, wrong, unfair or inaccurate, then at best it’s a burden and at worst it’s damaging to your professional reputation.

How and why we label, and how it affects us, is complicated; being boxed as ‘difficult to work with’, ‘disorganised’, ‘a poor manager‘or a ‘bad listener’ are labels you can do without. Then there are traits that one may view as positive, but applied in the wrong circumstances can be equally corrosive to working relations or career progression. Labels can be fuelled by colleagues who feel jealous or threatened – they may feel that you being good at your job magnifies their shortcomings. Even being narrowly perceived as just ‘a doer’, ‘a fixer’ or ‘the nice guy’ can be limiting at work.

How can you prevent labelling? It will always there in some form or other, but there are ways to control it:

Protecting your reputation is the best way. We assign labels to others based on our assessment of them as a person, as a colleague and as a professional. If you have respect for a colleague then you are more likely to view them positively and be less inclined to box them.

Communication is another important element - spend time getting to know your colleagues well, and let them get to know you. Take time to invest in quality communication from updating your team and your manager about the tasks on your to-do list, to kitchen and coffee break chit-chat. You might see it as self-promotion, but it works.

Think about your working style. If you have a label you’re unhappy with, is it justified? – be honest with yourself. You might want to adopt a label. If so, think of ways to adapt your leadership or your communication to slowly shift opinion. You might be happy with your label or you may be in a position where it’s not an issue. If you’re not sure, do you have a colleague you trust to discuss it with?

Be professional. Prepare thoroughly for meetings and presentations. Opinions are formed during interactions like this and your reputation will be compromised if you’re constantly late, under prepared, flustered or unprofessional.

Take responsibility for your actions and you will be respected. Enjoy your successes and hold your hands up to mistakes. Making excuses for your limitations is one way to damage your reputation and give yourself a label.

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