We humans like to put things in boxes. Situations that we cannot easily and quickly characterize generate some level of unease, whether conscious or not. We are most comfortable with what we can file neatly and label.

The same goes for how we view the people we meet and interact with in our professional life, and in our personal life as well.

Perhaps it’s all a bit primal, leftover from when we had to judge everyone immediately, “Are you friend or foe, hunter or hunted?” But the maxim about the importance of first impressions speaks to the lingering power of assessments and relationships in general.

In a professional setting, we generally need more input than a first impression. We need nuance, time to get to know someone and ponder the possibilities, whether a job candidate, a team inherited, a client, a vendor.

We take in all this input, but managing it can be overwhelming, so we default to applying labels that undersell many, including ourselves!

Labels don’t come unstuck very easily — off of us or others to whom we applied them.  And, labels get repeated and become legacy far too often.

Boxing us in: A $500 million business

Some organizations explicitly embrace labels, relying on personality tests such as the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, to evaluate current and future employees, to attempt to predict success. In fact, it’s a $500 million a year business, where 89 of the Forbes Top 100 companies use Myers-Briggs to help them understand their employees.

But how helpful are these tests and do we over-rely on them? A large body of work suggests they are not a perfect solution to judging character or the potential for success. The wise adage of “everything in moderation” applies here as well. We need to be cautious when relying on assessments, labels, and hearsay from others to draw quick conclusions about someone.

Those who take the tests we prescribe may simply play it safe, giving the most conventional answers possible, to appear moderate and moderating, regardless of actual temperament. Not only does this cover up potential conflicts, it covers up potential as well: outside the box thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, drive and determination.

Personality tests and similar formulaic assessments are a kind of pre-emptive feedback. Managers that rely on them are already telling the person labeled, prior even to any work done, just what they need to improve.

Feedback without a label and with concrete examples

Everyone remembers when they have gotten feedback that was perception-based or second hand. It’s frustrating! “That’s not me!” you want to scream. At the same time, we can all remember useful feedback that we still use today. Similarly, leaders remember times they’ve delivered great feedback and times when they fell short. Using assessments should be just one of many tools you use to help with feedback, awareness, and staff development.

Genuinely helpful feedback does not come out of the blue and it comes with context. Feedback must not only be delivered in a positive, constructive way, it must be received and welcome in order to have positive effects. In order for that to happen, the manager has to set the right conditions by being communicative to the employee about concerns as they arise, by not broad brush labeling.

No one likes surprises. Managers will find that most staff welcome feedback when it comes from a genuine base, layered with concrete examples.

Another important caution managers must keep in mind is to avoid having their feedback morph into a label, which can then too easily become a bias. Placing a stark label (bias) on someone limits not only the potential for that employee to succeed in the manager’s eyes, but it also curtails the organization’s ability to get the best out of a staff person. That ultimately will reflect poorly on management…After all, isn’t helping others achieve their best work what successful leadership is all about?

P.S. By the way, I’m a Myers-Briggs “ENTP,” which means I like to debate and “shake things up.” I suppose this is true, but what my ENTP label doesn’t show is just how much I like to bring out the best in others. Stuck with a label that doesn’t work for you? Drop me a line and let’s talk.