Horns and halos

Labelling colleagues – either in negative (“horns”) or positive (“halos”) terms – is like looking at them through a lens that colours all our perceptions, as well as those of others around us. This may result in a preconceived bias towards them that affects our judgements and, regardless of whether this takes the shape of horns or halos, makes us less objective in our assessments. It is therefore important to refrain from buying into such labels, and to keep an open mind at all times.

Barbara has just taken up an offer of internal mobility after returning from sick leave. She is looking forward to the job and the new relationships that it will bring. However, within a very short time, she starts to feel isolated, realising that she is often left out of invitations to meetings and informal exchanges and, as a result, lacks the up-to-date information she needs. Quite by chance, she learns that Sasha, her supervisor, had not been keen for her to join the team and had warned the others not to share too much with her, as she “was very close to someone in a rival experiment”. She realises that she had been perceived to be wearing the horns of untrustworthiness from her very first day in this new job.

Labels of this kind can be very difficult to shake off – particularly in an organisation like our own where people build long-term careers and the origins of such biases rapidly become obscure and impossible to verify.

Barbara tries to take the matter up with Sasha, who denies having spread rumours about her untrustworthiness whilst at the same time contradicting himself by saying that she should not be surprised by the cool reception as she was parachuted into the team without his agreement. She decides to focus on her work in the hope of carving out a place for herself over time but finds that despite all her efforts, the label persists and she is unable to establish good working relationships with Sasha or anyone else in the team. She tries to raise the issue with Luca, her group leader, but he brushes her off saying that he has known Sasha for years and trusts his judgements implicitly.

Far from addressing the issue, the group leader’s reaction in this case only serves to amplify the problem, acting as he does from a position of giving a positive label or halo to his line manager, who to his mind could not be capable of this discriminatory behaviour.

Whether it is a question of horns or halos, the long-term impact of labelling people can have serious consequences as objective judgement may be impaired by preconceived notions and biases. When generalised beyond an individual to groups of people, these biases can lead to many forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism and physical or cultural isolation.

Even where labels may have resulted from traceable actions in the past, they should be limited to that specific context or circumstance, and colleagues should be allowed to grow and evolve over the years without being trapped by or revered for past action. Indeed, whether framed by horns or a halo, everyone is capable of surprising us with unexpected or contradictory behaviour from time to time. That specific behaviour should be either rewarded or reprimanded – as appropriate and in a timely fashion – and not be allowed to colour all other actions over time.

Sudeshna Datta Cockerill​

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