Labeling is Easy: Dig Deeper to Change Behavior

It's quite easy to give ourselves a label, isn't it? We look at our behavior, and we look at how it affects others, and we give ourselves a label. I live up in the mountains of North Carolina and drive back roads all the time. Last summer I was driving in a city, was looking around at the unfamiliar surroundings, and drove right under the traffic light into an intersection. Just in case I wasn't aware of my error, a guy in a big Bronco SUV blasted his horn and pulled beside me staring angrily. I looked at him and pointed to my head and mouthed "Stupid". He seemed to agree and the confrontation was over. I had interpreted my own behavior with a label, "Stupid", and that simple adjective seemed appropriate.

In fact, labeling is quite popular in modern business where management training often involves some personality test like the MBTI where we learn everyone's label in hopes of better collaboration. "I'm an Introvert which explains my discomfort working in big teams." "I'm a Judger which explains why I'm so critical." Somehow these labels seem to be the magic elixir that make business work better. But they don't. Everyone goes back to the same environment and acts the same way, nothing changes.

We overuse labels when dealing with the safety of our work crews and managers. The implication is: if workers can't follow rules and procedures that are clearly in the manuals and training, and then they get hurt, they're "Stupid", "Noncompliant", or "Lazy" or "___________" (you can fill in the blank - please keep it rated "PG").

The problem is that you can't fix a label. All the exhortations in the world emphasizing "Don't BE this" won't work. But we do that in our training, in our incident investigation summaries shared with workers, and in our personal conversations. But nothing changes. And you get frustrated. You can't fix it. You're left with nothing, except getting more and more upset.

Instead, consider what behavioral science tells us. Instead of asking a person to BE something, focus on how you can help them DO what is required to be safe. Don't pretend and try to change someone. Leave that arrogance behind. Instead, be a servant.

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