Friday, February 11, 2011

Labeling and Workplace Identity – Good or Bad?

Taurus Symbol
I’m having an identity crisis. All my life I’ve been a Taurus. And because I am a Taurus, I’ve been told that I am determined and stubborn – some have even used the word bull-headed. But now, some scientists are suggesting that there is a thirteenth zodiac sign, and that the alignment of the stars is not quite what we’ve thought. Suddenly, instead of the bull, my mascot is the battering ram.

Research on my new sign, Aries, tells me that I should be headstrong and courageous, possibly even fearless. It feels like I’m forcing Cinderella’s show to fit.

The same kind of identity crisis can happen in the workplace. Whether self-imposed, earned, or bestowed upon us, we find ourselves being labeled in the workplace.

Julie is the creative one.

Jack is the sales guy.

Peter is the technical guru.

Sally is on the management fast track.

Labels like these can distinguish you from the pack, and may even open up opportunities for you. They are your workplace identity and can serve you well, but they can also be an inhibitor for you when organizations or circumstances change.

Being the expert is often a very good thing. Julie is in a fantastic position as the creative one when her organization is marketing a new product. It’s her time to shine. But what happens when Julie’s company decides to focus on current products, and no longer needs her creative expertise?

Jack had a great year last year selling that new product, but what happens when the market shifts and he doesn’t meet his sales targets this year?

Peter gets rewarded as the technical guy who designed the new product, but what happens when that product doesn’t sell well? Peter may find himself developing action plans and strategies for improvement rather than the next big thing.

Sally moves along quickly and easily in her career, but what happens when she decides to take a leave of absence for a couple of years? She may have difficulty maintaining her workplace identity when she returns.

The workplace identities that these employees have worked so hard to achieve are suddenly questioned. While little research is available on this topic, what is there suggests that when organizations change, employee workplace identities are affected. Even if these employees have many other skills, they may not be easily accepted in a new role. If we’re not careful we can become a fish out of water.

What’s your take on labels in the workplace, and have they served you well?
Don't forget to set your DVRs to record Jeopardy next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to watch IBM's Watson play Jeopardy against the champs!


Carol Kilgore said...

I've seen this kind of thing happen. It's also a good tool to use in character development to add another layer.

Kenneth H. Lee said...

It's a double edged sword. It has both helped and hindered me. It's great to be identified as having the skills for a particular project at hand, but it can become a liability when you want to spread your wings and broaden your horizons or when you end up with a bulls-eye on your back when talk of resource actions are in the air.

It's also great to be good at something but only when you enjoy doing it.

I've been in both situations and seen others in these situations. It's a difficult situation to be in when either your manager is not willing to work with you to help you move on to something else since you are their proverbial goose that lays golden eggs or your manager is second guessing your decisions and motivations since they feel that they know what you want better than you know what you want.

It's hard not to lash out at management for pigeon-holing you.

KarenG said...

I dislike labels in any environment altho we're human so we try to label people to make sense of life.

Stephen D said...

Pigeon-holing, or being known as the best person for X, can be dangerous. I scrupulously avoided getting identified to closely with a narrow range of skills in my earlier years; I moved on to something else. Toward the end of my professional career flexibility along these lines was not to be had and so inevitably there was little for me to do. It was time to retire anyway.
It seems now that recruiters, or job ads, tend to define a very narrow range of specific skills and/or required experience. When you are in a job, it then seems that flexibility and a wide range of skills is more valued. What's up there?

One Womans Eye said...

I've been a Scorpio my whole life and now they tell me I might be whatever that new sign is. An astrologer friend told me to ignore the new labeling.
Not as easy to do in the workplace, especially when someone else is doing the labeling. The biggest problem with those workplace labels is they often keep people stuck and without possibility for something better. Often the only way to remove that kind of label is to leave.
Great post!

Colette said...

I agree with Kenneth - It's a double-edged sword. While I hate labels, they do serve a purpose -- and sometimes that can be a good thing. It's when we get stuck in them that it becomes a problem.

Liz Fichera said...

Labels are usually a result of actions, I think. I'm not sure they are avoidable nor should they be? It's human nature. Don't forget "Tom" the brown-noser. He wasn't very popular in my office.

Colette said...

Ah yes, we all know a "Tom"

Liz Fichera said...

P.S. Omigod, the IBM computer is winning! It's just a matter of time...