Unlocking potential in your organization

Dr. Seuss on labeling

Dr. Seuss on labeling

What do you expect from other people? From yourself?

It’s performance review season at many organizations, the time when we hand out labels related to each individual’s performance as well as their potential, reserving the best labels for a small fraction of the workforce.

This systemic labeling of people is a cancer on modern organizations.

We’ve known for almost 50 years that the processes for arriving at these labels are riddled with biases. Worse, the labels related to potential are simply wrong and unnecessarily limiting, actively reducing the potential in the organization.

Now, maybe, we might finally be able to change things.

Labels: Pygmalion & Golem

In 1968, researchers demonstrated a fundamental truth we’re still not applying effectively at work or at home: people tend to live up to expectations.

The Pygmalion effect “is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform...The corollary...is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.”

The early research was done with elementary school students. Experimenters withheld results of IQ tests from teachers and, instead, randomly selected 20% of the pupils and identified them to teachers as students who would outperform their classmates in the coming year. Those students, as a result of what’s known as the “observer-expectancy bias”, did indeed outperform the other students.

Yes, there are differences in skill levels and in measurable performance. And yet study after study after study shows that much of what we deem performance in organizations is actually chance, the differences attributable to predictable variations within a given system. (Think of dart-throwing monkeys performing as well as stock brokers.) And when it comes to potential, we get what we label. Much of our success in school, work, and life, is governed by self-fulfilling prophecies - by the labels applied to us.

Although I was familiar with the studies and even wrote about it before, it wasn’t until a good friend told me about Aimee Mullins that I fully appreciated just how limiting labels can be.

The story of Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins had both her legs amputated below the knee when she was just a year old. Despite that, she went on to race track at Georgetown and ultimately became a world-class athlete, author, international speaker, and activist.

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

The label-defying Aimee Mullins

In one of her TED presentations, she talks about looking up “disabled” in the thesaurus. Here’s what she found:

Disabled, a.  crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid up, done up, done for, done in, cracked up, counted out; see also hurt, useless, weak. Antonym: healthy, strong, capable.”

In her view, “the only true disability is a crushed spirit.” She was fortunate to be surrounded by people who, instead of labeling and limiting her, helped her realize her own rich and unique potential.

It’s particularly striking to watch Amy’s 3 TED talks in sequence. Here she is in her early 20s, here showing off 12 beautiful pairs of legs, and here, in her 30s, she’s talking about the power of labels. Is Amy Mullins “disabled” and “broken”? Or is she “smart, inspiring, funny, articulate, bold, beautiful” and much, much more?

What to do about institutionalized biases?

What labels do you use for other people? For yourself? As Amy describes:

“It’s not just about the words. It’s what we believe about people when we name them with these words...Our language affects our thinking and how we view the world and how we view other people...What reality do we want to call into existence? A person who is limited? Or a person who is empowered? By casually doing something as simple as naming we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power. Wouldn’t we want to open doors for them instead?”

If you work in HR, your job is to increase the overall effectiveness of the workforce, not to label them and disenfranchise 90% of the people in the process. So some firms, even those like Microsoft that have been reviled for their long-held system of ratings and rankings, are changing their approach. Here's why:

"What's happened in the last 15 or 20 years is that HR has started to take a more analytical approach," [a researcher] said. We started to see the rise of evidence-based human resources, and when they looked at the numbers they weren't finding success [with stack ranking]. In fact, they were finding negative correlations to employee engagement and especially to innovation."

Most companies have shifted to systems that are more flexible. Employees may still be rated or ranked, but not along a bell curve or with strict cutoffs. There is also more focus on consistent feedback and how people can improve.”

And even if your company continues with practices that are unfair and dehumanizing, you don’t have to take it any more. Instead of waiting for someone to assign you a label of their choosing, make a habit of working out loud. Start writing your own richer, more complete, more empowering story.