Four Reasons Leaders Need To Avoid Labels

Labels were part of my upbringing. I say that because in my family each child was given a label to describe their abilities or personality. One of us was the baker and dramatic. One of us was pushy and a guitar player. One of us was an ice skater and not an academic. And crazy as it may seem, we lived up to those descriptions. They became us and we became them. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, that if we are told that we should behave or act in a certain way or that we are talented or not so capable, we tend to gravitate towards those depictions. We even create a narrative about who we are and what we can accomplish based on those labels.

Similarly in our companies and on our teams, we place labels on the people we work with. We decide early on who they are and what they are able to contribute. We continue to believe that the characteristics we attach to our co-workers and bosses are there for the long haul, never to be adjusted. This is how it is and we evaluate each of our strengths using those labels.

Leaders need to recognize that when they label the people they work with they are not empowering them to be their best or live up to their potential. Rather, the label becomes a self-limiting belief.

 Four reasons leaders need to avoid labels:


If we believe that stereotyping is never a helpful way to assess other people’s abilities, then labeling others falls into the same category. When we attach a particular attitude or ability to someone, we are using a “judgy” word to describe their capabilities rather than being specific about the value they may bring to a project or solution. Adjectives are often a waste of time and only add confusion to working with others.


We know that when children are “tracked” in how they will academically perform, they tend to stay exactly in that zone. If they are told they are only capable of achieving average grades they begin to believe it and just turn in average work. On the other hand, if they believe they have the potential to rise to outstanding work, they often will get there one way or another. The same is true with the people we work with. If they think we believe they can contribute in an outstanding way they often will.

  • Encourage each team member to try new things and take risks
  • Give credit generously
  • Stop yourself from using labels like “lazy”, “not capable” or “overwhelmed”


When leaders use labels other colleagues and departments may start to believe the labels too. So if we say that a team member is not committed (another nutty adjective) others may start to believe that too. This is how we stigmatize people. STOP! Everyone is entitled to have a good and bad day or a more or less successful project. Work on developing the strengths in others and help team members overcome their blindspots.


When teams get in the habit of labeling members they will tend to rely on the same people to always do the same work. The result will be less creative outcomes and less participation. Team members will not grow because they will not be encouraged to try projects outside of their “label”. An organization will never develop new leaders with new perspectives or capabilities unless we dump the practice of labeling.

How have labels impacted your leadership or team?

11 thoughts on “Four Reasons Leaders Need To Avoid Labels

  1. “Leaders need to recognize that when they label the people they work with they are not empowering them to be their best or live up to their potential. Rather, the label becomes a self-limiting belief.” So well said, Terri! Self-limiting beliefs are some of the most ingrained and difficult obstacles to overcome and seriously affect confidence in ourselves…if we believe we can’t do something, we won’t even try…leaders do not need to find ways to help their team members shed labels, not add to them…

  2. I agree that when we don’t share a belief that a team member is capable of overseeing a project or has the ability to grow into a bigger role, the individual too limits their expectations of themselves. I have seen this happen on many teams where leaders keep giving the work to the same people and as a result don’t help grow everyone on the team. Coaching team members who may not have the initial skills is a wonderful way to overcome labeling.

    Thanks LaRae for your wonderful insights!

  3. The same principle applies in healthcare. ‘The Unpopular patient’ by F Stockwell 1984 shows how damaging a negative label for a patient can be. E.g. The regular attender, the alcoholic, the social problem or bed blocker.

  4. It is so true about the negative labeling of patients. I have done a lot of leadership training in hospitals and there is a study where two people dressed completely differently walk into an emergency room. The individual who dressed more professionally received better care and treatment than the younger kid in their jeans. It is fascinating to see how we make judgements and then treat people based on those assumptions and limitations.

    Thanks so much Shirley for stopping by and sharing your excellent additions!

  5. Most of the time I think we don’t even realize when we’re labeling people. We’re quick to categorize and box in because it makes the world easier to understand. I know I had labels growing up and I know I did inside of the organizations where I worked too. What I’m less attuned to is how I labeled others without even thinking about it.

    Will share, Terri.


  6. You bring up an interesting point about not always being cognizant when we label others. I think this happens all the time on teams but maybe if we tune into how it makes us feel to be labeled, we can be more aware when we label others.

    Thanks for sharing your perspectives with us Alli!

  7. Great points Terri!

    I was recently visiting with a parent that has lots of children. As we talked about the specific goals of one of his teenagers we discussed dual credit courses as an option for higher education for his children that would save time and a significant amount of money.

    He quickly responded that one of his children would not be motivated enough to do that.
    (A phase that he uses often to describe that child.)

    Which led to a discussion about how our words impact the future of those we speak about.

  8. Great story Chery and one that totally exemplifies how labels can define us. Parents and teachers need to be careful about what we say to our children and specifically the words we use. Children just like team members at work hear our judgements and then start to internalize them. Instead, we need to lead as parents and professionals with honesty about a person’s potential while recognizing that we all have our gifts and our blindspots. The goal is to focus on growing the strengths and adjusting for the blind spots.

    Thanks so much Chery!

  9. This is interesting as it appears to refer to labels concerning performance or perceived talent.
    The reason one of my team refuses to complete questionnaires designed to support team building exercises (Belbin; Myers Briggs; Influencing Styles) is that they end up labelling you rather than treating you as an individual. Whereas such profiles to me give insight and opportunities for growth and development.

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