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

When Naming Hurts

by

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

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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