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The costs of the label game

- Ro Crosbie is president of Tero International, a premier interpersonal skills and corporate training company.

Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Ia.  Following the assassination in 1968 of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prominent civil rights movement leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elliott decided to teach her students about discrimination with a controversial experiment.

She segregated her students based on their eye color. The activity was designed to demonstrate the experience of being a member of a minority group. Beyond an appreciation for the experience of African Americans, the labeling activity held insightful lessons in how all people respond to how they are treated.

The experiment

In the first part of the exercise, Elliott assigned the role of “superior people” to the blue-eyed students giving them extra privileges such as a longer recess, special access to playground equipment, extra helpings at lunch, and full use of the water fountain. 

So that eye color could be quickly assessed from a distance, she had the brown-eyed students wear large, visible collars around their necks. To make the case that blue-eyed people were superior, she pointed out mistakes made by brown-eyed children as evidence of their inferiority and chastised them. She highlighted and celebrated achievements of the blue-eyed children as proof that they were smarter and better people. 

In the second part of the exercise she reversed the roles.  

The results

The students in each group responded to how they were treated. The “superior” students became bossy and treated the “inferior” group poorly. Their performance on tests and tasks improved significantly – beyond their previously demonstrated abilities. The “inferior” students became withdrawn and their performance on tests dropped. 

The performance effect was particularly stunning as it correlated directly to how the students were treated. The blue-eyed students, when labeled inferior, were retested on the same activity they performed the previous day when they had been labeled superior. Their performance dropped markedly. The performance of the brown-eyed students on the same task improved on the second day when their label changed from inferior to superior.

The changes were immediate and profound. Within a span of minutes, the environment created by the teacher transformed the behavior of the students. A viewing of the PBS Frontline documentary, A Class Divided, allows viewers to observe firsthand how these children responded to how they were treated. Everyone exposed to this experience, even viewers decades later, is impacted in a significant way. It is heartbreaking to watch previously confident and outgoing children isolate themselves on the school grounds after being labeled as inferior a short time earlier.

Her “blue-eyes/brown-eyes” exercise is credited for making Jane Elliott famous, earning her the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education and launching an impressive international public speaking and training career in diversity education. 

Back at home, the reach of the experiment extended beyond the classroom activity and had a substantial impact on how Elliott herself was treated by her peer group and many members of the community. Possibly because of the young age of the students involved in the activity, the exercise did not make her popular in Riceville – at least not in the short-term. After an appearance on the Tonight Show, teachers walked out of the teachers’ lounge when Elliott arrived.  Her daughter was taunted with hate messages in her junior high school. 

In the business world

Social media tagDoes an experiment involving children have any material insight for business professionals?

When organizations divide people into like groups, separate them from each other and attach labels to them, they are creating an environment not dissimilar from the environment Jane Elliott created for her students.

That is precisely what leaders do when they create functional areas within the business, designate work areas for various groups and assign department labels.

  • Those sales people…
  • Those engineers…
  • Those IT people…
  • Those executives…
  • Those administrative people…
  • Those accountants…

It is no surprise that people in departments treat other groups within the company as if they were competitors.  Name calling, stereotyping, self-promotion and denigrating others are just a few of the common behaviors that exist when the inevitable effect of The Label Game is allowed to flourish.

It isn’t easy. It makes business sense to have all the accountants working in a common area.  It makes sense to have all the sales people functioning together in a sales department. Creating a laboratory environment for researchers and technicians to collaborate closely together is a good business practice. Assigning call center staff to different areas around the organization would be inefficient and confusing. 

A caution for leaders

Because organizations employ people who are different from each other in numerous ways, virtually every organization is at risk. Leaders must be keenly attuned to the potential negative consequences of labeling in the workplace and work to ensure that they don’t contribute to the problem. Leaders are wise to look for and create opportunities for mutual respect across work groups and departments.

What the blue-eyes, brown-eyes experiment teaches us is labels matter. You tend to get what you expect. As leaders, if we expect people to be bored, sluggish and lazy, we will treat them that way and probably get that kind of behavior from them. If we expect them to be motivated, excited, and interested, we will treat them accordingly and probably find that they are excited and motivated.

While the research is mixed on whether or not Elliott’s experiment in discrimination reduces long-term prejudice, what is clear is that her experiment is conclusive in proving that people respond to how they are treated. A leader (in this case, a classroom teacher) entrusted with the care of others, is able to influence the behaviors of people interacting.

How can these insights inform how you lead?

- Ro Crosbie is president of Tero International, a premier interpersonal skills and corporate training company.

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Website: www.tero.com

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