Labeling is quite popular in modern business. Management training often involves taking some personality test where we learn everyone’s “type” 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.” These labels don’t make a business more efficient. 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 this in our training, in our incident investigation summaries shared with workers, and in our personal conversations. Again, nothing changes. And you get frustrated.  You can’t fix it. You’re left with nothing, except getting more and more upset.

Let’s consider what behavioral science tells us. Don’t ask a person to BE something, focus on how you can help them DO what is required to be safe. Recognize that EVERYONE wants to be safe and act safe. It’s your job to remove the barriers that put people in the position to, knowingly or unknowingly, take a risk. When you get away from personal labels you’ll be much more likely to see what those barriers are.

A barrier to understanding

Labeling is counterproductive. It’s better to understand what is going on in our workers’ world and do something about it instead of trying to do something about them. Change the environment, and by changing the environment, we change behavior. Do employees need different, more accessible tools? Better, more behavioral training? Procedures that lessen fatigue? Supervision that doesn’t encourage short cuts?

It’s your job do the analysis to find the environmental causes of the behaviors so your workers don’t have to put themselves in a position to take risks any longer. We don’t need to label.

Lesson in humility

When I was teaching the junior youth Sunday School class at my church I had a young lady who was born with Down Syndrome. An IQ test would have labeled her as mentally retarded.  Miranda was also one of the sweetest kids I got to interact with, but I knew she had a limited future, probably performing at a 6th grade level the rest of her life.

About five years ago I got word that my university was extending its disability services to include mental retardation. Typically, I have students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficits (ADD) who get extra time on exams and other accommodations so they can perform up to their intellectual abilities less encumbered by their disability.

But I was skeptical about allowing mentally retarded individuals into the university system because their intellectual capabilities would not allow for the learning to take place to begin with. We would be setting them up to fail – failure to live up with the academic standards of our courses regardless of any accommodations we provide.

This spring Miranda graduated from Appalachian State University.

I was at Miranda’s graduation, in my learned doctoral robes, once again humbled by the potential of human performance.