Warning! Labels Are Addictive!

Warning! Labels Are Addictive! by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by author

Am I the only one who remembers those old fashioned hand-held labelers that used plastic/vinyl strips with an adhesive backing? … A neighbor, who was fortunate enough to be on the cutting edge of technology in the 70s, brought her labeler over one day. I was fascinated as I watched this lady make labels. Exciting times in the 70s! No iPhone 4 on Verizon, no iPad, no Skype, Mac Book Pro, Kindle. But we had Tang, the breakfast drink of the astronauts, and we had the ability to make really cool labels.

Once these labelers caught on, labels were everywhere. I remember going in to my dad’s “office” (a U.S. Marine Corps building, Camp Lejeune, NC ). These guys really knew how to label. In fact, I daresay my dad worked with some guys who were labeling “experts.”

They had labels on the filing cabinets, large manila envelopes, and on in/out mail baskets. All that kinda made sense (assuming you know what an in/out basket is!). What I wasn’t prepared for (though I thought they were cool), were the labels on … well, you know, ordinary things. Like staplers. Yes, the stapler had a red label (with white embossed letters) that said, “stapler.” The coffee pot had, you guessed it, a label that said, “Coffee pot” on it…. My favorite label was the one on the labeler itself. Hmmmm. Any ideas? Yes, you got it! It had a label on it that said, “labeler.” Wow! – how cool was that.

High school and middle school was full of labels: jock, nerd, cool. Though people didn’t go around with a plastic vinyl label on their forehead, everyone knew what label others wore. Occasionally, someone would even find out what label they wore. … “I’m not going to the movies with you! You’re a jerk!” … “Don’t hang out with them. They’re not cool!”

College had its own labels. These labels identified students’ gender, race, GPA, ethnicity, etc. Were you from the North or South? Did you go to a public or private high school? What did your parents do and how much do they make? And the big one – what’s your major? Because we all know a college student’s major tells you everything you’d ever need to know about them.

We all know what the label Art Major vs. Engineering Major means. End of discussion. History Major? Business Major? Political Science? In 2 seconds, the label immediately tells the educated person all they need to know. You know whether you want to be that person’s friend, ask ’em on a date, hang out with ’em or marry ’em.

I began my college adventure as a petroleum engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines. This was an acceptable label at CSM. In fact, it was THE label. In the early 80s, everyone wanted to be a petroleum engineer. … When I transferred to Clemson University at the end of my freshman year and switched by major to Industrial Engineering, I didn’t realize that my label was the bottom of the engineering totem pole (IEs were called “imaginary engineers” by all the other engineering majors). The Institute of Industrial Engineers didn’t say anything about “imaginary.” They said it would be a tough curriculum that focused on lean manufacturing, six sigma, and process optimization. Someone forgot to tell them they were supposed to “imaginary.”

My first job at Eastman Chemical Company was more of the same. Labels. People didn’t wear the vinyl strip labels, but we all knew where everyone went to school and whether or not you were a Chemical Engineer. You see, there were really only two labels: the Haves (chemical engineers), and the Have Nots (everyone else). I was told I could never manage a chemical process, a chemical plant, chemical engineers, or a chemical laboratory. Why? I didn’t have the right label.

What is it I do today? I lead six chemical factories in North America staffed with many chemical engineers, chemists, and chemical laboratories. How could this be? Didn’t I know that my label – Industrial Engineer – prevented me from being a chemical manufacturing executive? Didn’t I know my place?

The world has it wrong! As do many leaders. Middle school, high school, and college students (and professors!) have it wrong. Parents have it wrong. Pastors have it wrong. Corporate executives have it wrong. Labels are not only addictive, they’re wrong. They limit performance. Don’t be a victim. Reject the label others give you if it’s not accurate. I’m a complex person. No label is going to define me. Nor 20 labels. Refuse to give in to the labeling addiction. Don’t label others. Refuse to be labeled.

What labels do you see that are destructive in organizations? … How can leaders “root out” labeling and create a environment of “uncapped” growth/success?

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