How we label ourselves matters. Sometimes we wear old labels without even noticing.
Years ago, I attended a diversity workshop with an exercise designed to get us thinking about labels. The main idea was that the more we talked about our differences in a safe environment, the better we would understand one another and get along. If we got along, our teams would be high-performing and results would follow.
We all were handed a stack of sticky labels and a marker. The first step was to list all the labels that we used to describe ourselves (mother, friend, change agent, energetic). We then placed these labels all over our bodies and walked around and talked about how we felt. The next step was to have others create labels for us based on how they saw us.
We then donned those stickies (with more discussion). This led to others giving us really nice labels (nice, kind, smart)… and a big group hug at the end. I must admit that although I love the concept, this was a bit corny, even for the HR gal (yup, one of the labels I was given)…but it was a snuggly day, and we all felt better and went back to work.
I hadn’t thought about that exercise in years. Until recently, when the image of the labelled swarms came rushing back.
I have been working with a few folks on broadening their career horizons. After years of being really, really good at what they are really, really good at, they are feeling stuck. They want to try new stuff, but they are being viewed so positively in one arena, people are having a hard time seeing the possibilities and other talents.
And then, I started seeing the truth in labeling. It is not always others putting the “stickies” on them. I began noticing that under pressure, the first label they put on is the most comfortable. “Oh, I can do that, I’m the ____ woman.” Leave it to me, I’ve got years of experience doing __” They keep putting on the tattered labels they claim they are trying to release.
When they see it, they do great work on repackaging.
How we talk about ourselves matters. We can label ourselves without even noticing. We’ve been saying the words so long, we forget the implications.
It might be time to refresh the label exercise, in a virtual way.
- What labels do we put on first? Why?
- What labels are we most proud of? Why?
- Which labels do we want to discard? Why?
- What labels are yearning to put on our forehead… next? Why?