Deception and Labels

Labels can shape the behaviour they describe, affecting our research. Knowing when labels describes or shapes actions makes a difference.

Are you creative because you do creative things or is it because you do creative things that you’re considered creative?

What if both were true?

The next question: do you self-identify with that label (or others like ‘leader’ or’athlete’)?

How we relate to the labels we use in our work and life can have a profound effect on what we do and how we do it. Labels can be used to empower, harm, or simply describe something or help us organize the world around us. They are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but nor are they neutral.

Labels are important for creating change and evaluation because they help describe what is being studied or researched. Coming to agreement on what labels mean is one way to reduce misunderstanding and, when done in an inclusive manner, can ensure that groups are properly recognized and not dis-empowered or discriminated against.

But what happens when the labels neither seek to help us understand, describe or explain something, yet are used regularly under the guise of these very functions?

Generational divides (real and perceived)

A recent opinion post in the Globe and Mail (paywall) caught my attention with this headline (and quote) that points to the challenge of labels:

‘Sorry, I’m a Gen Xer’ – said no Gen Xer ever

Elieen Dooley, The Globe and Mail

The auther, Eileen Dooley, is a professional recruiter and deals with employers seeking employees every day, which brings her face-to-face with job trends and the one that bothers her among others is the labeling — self- and otherwise — of habits and behaviour based on demographic category.

Her observation is that ‘millennials‘ will explain themselves using language that refers to their demographic group like the quote above. Her issue is that no Gen X’er did/does this. Collectively we of different generations have started referring to millennials or now Gen-Z’s as groups with regularity.

Now, people are starting to self-label when it comes to taking these stereotypes to heart.

What has once been some pop-cultural means to comment on certain commonalities related to age group has now morphed beyond simply marketing to being part of culture itself.

Dooley, speaking on the topic of workforce issues, points out that many of challenges that ‘millennials’ face are ones that Gen X’ers faced, too. They aren’t new, although they might have a more updated ‘feel’ to them. These include:

  • Multiple jobs, many outside of what we went to school for, early in our adult life before — or if ever — ‘settling’ into a career
  • Remote work (working from home or other places) thanks to the Internet
  • Desire to be constantly challenged in work
  • Frequent switching of jobs until finding the right fit. Some never do find that fit.

While technology has influenced the manner and the amplification of these issues with work, but then hasn’t technology always done this? What’s genuinely different is that we are seeing a generation self-label and perhaps embrace the stereotypes that come with it.

That, too, has implications – particularly for how we measure, influence, and support change.

Label fetishism and its problems

It’s one thing to embrace a label, but it’s another when the label defines the course of actions taken or not in a manner that doesn’t serve.

Learning is one of the spaces where these labels can be harmful to the outcome (learning) and the process (instruction, communication, sharing) by miscommunicating something to the world (and the self) and creating a false identity.

Some of these harmful labels are based on ignorance of educational theory, misuse or misinterpretation of research, cultural myths, or even disguised self-preference. For example, we might prefer to learn in certain ways, but that isn’t necessarily the way we learn the most, the best, or for a certain activity.

Like the popular term ‘learning organization’, learning isn’t just a certain set of things, but a way of being comprising leadership, collaboration, openness, discussion, and certain attitudes and systems perspectives. Building true learning systems and supports is far harder than labeling your organization as a ‘learning organization’.

I’ve worked with many organizations that describe themselves this way and yet exhibit little evidence of the qualities that the term is meant to reflect

Developmental evaluation and complexity-related thinking face the same challenges. By labeling themselves innovators, complexity-oriented, or adaptive organizations create a myth around what they do and it shapes the inaction around those very things.

There is this fetishism around labeling — people, groups, and organizations — that is no longer about having labels imposed on us, but us creating labels for ourselves. It’s when others seek to take this as truth that we are at risk of misspecification of the problems at hand.

Design & critical specification

This is where a design-oriented approach to both innovation and its evaluation come in handy. Designers, when working at their best, are trained to spend considerable time observing things ahead of the ‘making’ part of their project.

Designers don’t take for granted the assumptions laid out by the design brief, rather they ask higher-order questions about the bigger purpose and place that the design in question is meant to serve. For example, a designer would call into question the purpose and nature of the label that is self-ascribed.

A designer might ask what the purpose the label serves:

Is the label about identity? This is how I see myself.

Is it about aspiration? This is how I want to see myself.

Is it about perception? This is how others see me.

Is it about fear? I am afraid of something and this label affords me some protection or cover.

Is it about manipulation? If I label myself this way you won’t ask me to do things another way.

If we approach those we are seeking to serve with these questions we might better understand what kind of things are going on and avoid misattributing causes and effects to the wrong thing.

It also opens up the opportunity to have conversations about what we prefer as well as what works or happens. This part of the critical specification that is necessary for effective evaluation and innovation. If we had better specfication at the beginning, might we see different outcomes?

Could it be that the reason we see such low rates of success in innovation isn’t that we don’t get it right, it’s that we’re focusing on the wrongly mis-labelled things in the first place?

That’s worthy of a label of ‘interesting’.

Photo by Annie Spratt on UnsplashHelena Hertz on Unsplash, and Samuel Zeller on Unsplash . Thank you three for sharing your art with the world.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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