In a Crisis, Avoid Labeling (HBR)

Politicians on the right and left are quick to label issues. For example, some may call federal assistance to businesses “nationalization.” Others may refer to the assistance as “stabilization.” Such labeling is part of the political discourse; it encourages like-minded followership. And therein lies the problem; you speak to partisans rather than to individuals.

Executives need to avoid such political games; they need to reach out to all stakeholders. When times are tough, no one person has all of the answers, but so often the collective intelligence of the organization can suggest alternate ways of thinking. The first step in soliciting new thinking is to stop the labeling game. Here are some suggestions:

Avoid generalizations. Short-term thinking leads us to believe that good ideas come from on high, and dumb ideas come from below. That, after all, is the basis of hierarchy. But when we have witnessed so much organizational failure, often emanating from poor decisions made in the C-suite, it is time to shake up the decision-tree. Encourage people to think for themselves when they approach issues and problems.

Skip the name-calling. Bosses are not idiots, nor are employees half-wits, but all too often we hear slurs from either side. And while it may sometimes make us feel good to let loose with such terms of “dis-endearment,” resist the temptation. Learn to look at colleagues as contributors rather than as two-dimensional cutouts.

Stop pejorative thinking. If a person comes up with an idea that the team has not tried, a common reaction is to say, “no way, no how.” The labeling of a new idea cuts off discussion before the idea can be debated. It may indeed be a dumb idea, but until it is discussed and debated, you will never know. Jumping immediately to “no” is a sign of desperation. It is short-hand thinking that feeds short-term actions that may do long-lasting harm. Ideas for new products as well as process improvement come often from doers rather than managers. At the same time, managers, too, have good ideas. Each needs to listen to the other.

Don’t objectify. President Lyndon Johnson, as noted in the classic text on negotiation Getting to Yes, routinely referred to the enemy as “he.” Although common in military usage, Johnson used the pronoun in reference to the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the Chinese — as if they were a single entity without noting their differences. Same goes for managers who consider anyone who questions a decision as a “dissenter” and automatically on the “other side.” Objectification creates distance between speaker and listener, and thereby hinders negotiation and collaboration.

Of course not all labeling is wrong-headed. After all, brand identification is a form of visual short-hand. When people associate a positive experience with a brand, be it toothpaste or an automobile, they will buy it, tell friends about it, and buy it again. That “labeling” is beneficial.

But when labeling is used for exclusion, especially in terms of people and ideas, then it cuts the leader off from opening dialogue with people who may have good questions as well as some answers. Labeling also erodes organizational cohesion. It divides individuals into “us” and “them” camps. That is destructive and prevents people coming together for joint purpose.

And that may be the differentiator with companies in trouble — good people coming together to solve problems.

First posted on 5.04.2009