Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Toxic, Harassing, Abusive, Evil, Micro-Manager, Slug—Workplace Labels Are Not Necessarily True and Are Almost Never Helpful.

Labels about people and work environments often take the place of accurate description and clear thinking. It’s easy and sometimes helpful to use a descriptive term to give someone an overall idea about someone without doing into great detail. Unfortunately, those terms are often over-dramatized and invariably unpleasant.

In addition, pop psychology labels or sarcastic terms often replace an effort to understand a problem and develop a solution.  It is much easier for someone to refer to a workplace as toxic than to admit he or she might be causing many of the problems, or to work for an improved workplace. It’s easier to say the boss is abusive and you are being victimized, than to analyze why so many others think he is a decent person and think you are an ineffective communicator.

Even if the accusation is true, using a label can make a conflict worse because it shuts down attempts to improve things. Once you have decided an employee is a slug, you will tend to stop treating him as though he can learn to do better and wants to do better, with your support. Once you say your boss is a micro-manager you will tend to view every request or direction as irritating and unnecessary.

Using a descriptive term can be convenient–just make sure you define your term and that you discuss the whole person not just one aspect of his or her style that you don’t care for. All of us are more than a label can accurately describe.

Negative labels often just reflect the perspective of one person. I receive many emails about workplace issues, and I understand the concerns many people have. However, I become frustrated and irritated at how quickly writers assign an unpleasant, negative label to people they don’t like and situations with which they have problems. You may recall me talking about this in my articles about abuse and harassment. My view was that abuse and harassment are much more than discourtesy and insensitivity. Yet, often when people say they have been harassed or abused, the details only indicate incivility and dislike–often from both directions.

Not long ago I received an email from someone who said her supervisor was a Dinosaur Brain (from the book of the same name.) She used jargon from the book as well as a magazine article she had read to “diagnose” the problem. I asked for specifics, and it turns out her boss has many good qualities, but doesn’t incorporate most of her suggestions for work. That may only mean her suggestions are not very good. Or, it may mean her boss wants to be in charge of everything or that he must go by another protocol. His actions may indicate many things, but calling him Mr. Dinosaur Brains behind his back and assuming his actions are solely because he is small-minded and unwilling to change, is disrespectful and as hurtful to their working relationship as if he referred to her as Ms. Ditz Brain. (And he may.)

The Bottom Line: Watch yourself when you start throwing around a term that sounds nasty enough to fit someone you don’t like or negative enough to describe your workplace–the way you perceive it. Only use the term if you can also fully describe what behavior that person is exhibiting and why you think the term is appropriate, or what preponderance of evidence you have to show that almost everything at work is harmful to people working there. Be able to say what you have done to help make the situation better, apart from popular jargon and name-calling.

For every label or description you think about using, make the conscious effort to describe specific behavior or situations to illustrate your point. Be able to define your terms so others will know what you mean and upon what you are basing your remarks. Doing that might help you realize that while you may not like a person or situation, things aren’t quite as awful as your dramatically horrible label would indicate. Or, it might reinforce your perceptions with supportive evidence.

So there, you Vile Troll, you.

February 21st, 2009 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 9 comments