When Naming Hurts
by Rick Brenner
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
They'd been at it for an hour, and Chuck was convinced that agreement was still out of reach. Geoff and the people from Diamond Square wanted to ship immediately and deal with any remaining problems in the field. Chuck and everyone else wanted to spend a little more time finding out how bad the problems were, and then make a more careful go/no-go decision. So the meeting was stuck.
Chuck offered an idea: "Why don't we all take a break and return at half past? Maybe get a bite to eat and if we come back refreshed, we might find a compromise."
Geoff quickly replied, "Not on your life. I've had enough dithering and stalling. Let's keep going until we decide."
By labeling Chuck's suggestion "dithering" and "stalling," Geoff hoped to devalue the idea. He used the power of naming not to advance the group's effort to resolve its differences, but to characterize Geoff's suggestion so as to devalue it. If he wins his point by attaching a one-dimensional name to the rich, open-ended tactic of taking a break, the team could be deprived of a possibly fruitful resolution of its impasse.
surprisingly commonSometimes, naming hurts.
And it's a tactic that many abuse. Over the next week, you can take an inventory of naming tactics in your organization. Once you start watching for name abuse, you'll be surprised at how common it is, and you'll be less likely to do it yourself.
Here are some typical examples of naming that can hurt.
- Analysis paralysis
- This name can end thinking and discussion when used like this: "Let's not get stuck in analysis paralysis." Another favorite term is "over-analysis."
- Rushing and haste
- By calling the resolution to act "rushing" we can halt action: "Let's not rush into this." Another form: "Let's not be so hasty."
- Bureaucratic micromanaging
- Labeling regulation and controls as bureaucratic micromanaging can cause an organization to abandon responsible and necessary controls. Not all controls are bureaucratic. Not all management is micromanagement.
- Human capital, Human resources
- By using the same name for people as we use for trucks or copy paper, we dehumanize the people. This makes it easier for us to make decisions that trouble us morally or ethically. If you call people "people" you're more likely to take your own values into account.
Labeling someone's ideas or behaviors, as Geoff did above, can be especially destructive, because we can hear the label as if it were applied to us personally, rather than to our ideas or behavior. Anger and defensiveness can follow. If you notice someone using these tactics on you, inhale, then exhale, and only then respond. Reminding yourself of your own humanity helps you forgive the namer and deflect the name. Top Next Issue
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