Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 19;   May 11, 2016: Characterization Risk

Characterization Risk

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015

Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015. In the course of the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S., Dr. Carson has been characterized as sleepy, slow, and slow-witted. And Dr. Carson has characterized others as well. For example, he has characterized President Obama as anti-semitic. Although characterizations are widely used in political campaigns, they degrade the level of debate and distort the outcomes of elections. Photo (cc) by SA 3.0 by Gage Skidmore.

Characterizing is a rhetorical tactic used for evaluating a person, event, or concept. For example, "Let's not make such a big deal out of this decision," is a way of disagreeing with another's approach to making the decision not by critiquing the specifics of their approach, but by labeling it as a "big deal." To characterize is to devise a description, usually a judgmental one, for evaluating a person, event, or concept. Because characterization often serves to support the speaker's preconceptions, it's a popular debate tactic that can lead to making decisions on bases other than the merits of the question.

When we characterize pejoratively, even if accurately, the person characterized, or the proponents of the idea characterized, can feel personally attacked. They might retaliate later, if not immediately. And the targets of that retaliation can be anyone or anything. Pejorative characterization is risky.

But characterizations can cause trouble even if not pejorative. In private settings, positive characterizations can be harmless, or even constructive. But if a public positive characterization is comparative, it can offend others. For example, "That's the most brilliant idea we've heard so far," praises that idea, while simultaneously and implicitly characterizing the other ideas as less brilliant.

Some try to mitigate the risks of positive comparative characterizations by means of carefully worded hedges:

  • "That's a brilliant idea — no idea we've heard so far is more brilliant."
  • "Robert is a great team player. None better."

These hedges explicitly eliminate the implication that the alternative ideas are less brilliant, or that the other team members have less team spirit. While the intentions of the speaker might be laudable, hedges are ineffective, for two reasons. First, the person being characterized, or the proponent of the idea being characterized, often does hear the hedge, and does notice the faintness of the praise. And second, ironically, most other people don't hear the hedge. They often feel attacked anyway.

What can we do about this? Begin by accepting that there's no place for public, pejorative characterization of people, their behavior, or their contributions. Constructive, critical commentary is helpful, if delivered privately, respectfully, and with permission. But how can we offer support for good ideas, or commend constructive behavior, without characterization?

One There's no place for public, pejorative
characterization of people, their
behavior, or their contributions
approach that limits the risk of giving offense is to focus not on the person, or their contributions, but on the consequences for organizational goals, while avoiding comparisons. Examples:

  • "That suggestion could lead to big savings in maintenance costs."
  • "When Robert stepped up after the server crashed, he really helped us avoid a catastrophe."

In these forms, we avoid directly commending the personhood of the contributor. Instead, we commend the outcomes of the contributions, which avoids devaluing by implication any other contributors.

Listen for characterizations in the debates you witness every day. Are they helpful? Do they advance the group toward its goals? Go to top Top  Next issue: Ego Depletion and Priority Setting  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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 Conflict Management:

Conflict Haiku
When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
Power poles after Hurricane Rita, 2005Email Ethics
Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
A tournamentQuestioning Questions
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
Dry Falls, in Grand County, Washington StateImpasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?

See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings 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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
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!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.