Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 41;   October 9, 2002: When Naming Hurts

When Naming Hurts

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.

Cheese and crackersChuck 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.

Abusive naming
tactics are
surprisingly common
Sometimes, 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Commitment Makes It Easier  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

The former New York skylineMarking Grief
Grief is usually a private matter, but for many, September Eleventh is different because our grief can be centered in the workplace. On September Eleventh, give yourself permission to do what you need for yourself, and give others permission to do what they need for themselves. Here are some choices.
Hot and cold faucetsHot and Cold Running People
Do you consider yourself a body linguist? Can you tell what people are thinking just by looking at gestures and postures? Think again. Body language is much more complex and ambiguous than many would have us believe.
A happy babyPeek-a-Boo and Leadership
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
The Bill of RightsEthical Influence: I
Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
An informal meeting geometryMake Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk.

See also Emotions at Work and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!