Are your labels damaging your team?

Melissa Rosenthal
4 min readOct 26, 2021


Photo by Anh Henry Nguyen on Unsplash

We humans like to put others in boxes. To classify them in ways that make sense according to our world order. It’s one of the reasons why movie series’ like Marvel are so popular — heroes and villains.

As leaders, we do the same. Over time, we tend to classify our people as their story in our team unfolds. A new person joins. They address some long-felt pain points and deliver some quick wins — voila, the hero. As they settle into their role, we increase the demands on them. If they cannot grow at the same pace as our expectations, we tend to downgrade their performance — and the villain appears.

The same may happen for team members promoted into new, more senior roles. In their previous position, they were smashing it. That’s why we promoted them. Then we ask them to take on new, more significant, and complex challenges — and we are surprised when they don’t perform at the same level as before.

In reality, it’s not quite that melodramatic. I’ll bet, if you cast your mind back, you’ll be able to think of at least one example of a team member who at one time was seen as the flavour of the month by the senior leadership team and then sometime later seems to be on the outer. It may have even been you. Or perhaps this story sounds familiar because you’re the one who reclassified a member of your team.

Let’s think about the impact of an extreme shift like that, starting with psychological safety. Speaking up and making mistakes without fear of consequences is the typical test of psychological safety. It’s hard to see how that can exist for someone who senses that they have moved from hero to villain. Whether real or perceived, in that case, they have already experienced consequences. Similarly, other team members looking on will likely feel inhibited by the risk that their status or prospects will change if they speak up or make an error.

Once psychological safety in the team is threatened, behaviour starts to change. As confidence wanes, people start second-guessing themselves. Decision-making gets pushed upwards as the team feel ill-equipped and intimidated by the prospect of being ‘on the hook’ for the outcome. Innovation and creativity diminish. It becomes a vicious cycle that is damaging for the individual, the team and the company.

Once you’ve put a dent in psychological safety, you’ll likely see flow-on effects on other elements of your teams’ performance, such as motivation. In particular, you might see a decline in discretionary effort, those instances where previously someone would have gone above and beyond to deliver an outcome, knowing that it would benefit the team and themselves. Once they feel like their opportunity to progress has been capped by your categorisation, they may say, “why bother?” when asked to go the extra mile.

So, how do you avoid the trap of creating heroes and then turning them into villains? Here are my top tips for you:

  • Be aware and take care — I know that sounds a bit like a primary school road safety motto. Still, it’s far easier to manage your initial reactions before they become ingrained views that impact your behaviour and decisions. The trick is finding a trigger that helps you recognise (in real-time) when your beliefs are shifting. At that point, it’s helpful to zoom out and focus on the broader context of the individual’s contribution, not just what you’ve observed in the last week or two.
  • Check for reasonableness — ask yourself if the expectations you’re placing on the individual are fair and reasonable? Have you done everything you can to set them up for success? And to support them as they strive to achieve the goals you set? Don’t forget to consider your role in the current situation before labelling members of your team.
  • Look for the positive — We can’t un-see or un-think things. There’s a risk that, once we’ve seen something that would typically move someone from hero to villain, we become blinded to the things that would shift them back towards hero status. Don’t forget to keep your eyes out for the positives (and tell the person when you see them).
  • Create conversations — if someone feels like they are in the villain box, they’re probably wondering if they have a future in your team. Regular conversations that reinforce your perspective on their potential and how you intend to help them reach it will reduce their uncertainty.
  • Acknowledge and reset — Often, being transparent is the most powerful thing you can do. Openly acknowledging that you had moved someone into the penalty box and now you’re resetting things could give them the confidence boost they need to relax and perform at their best.

It’s hard to avoid the instinct to categorise our team members. Hopefully, this article has given you a few ideas on leading your way through it and giving your team the best chance of success.



Melissa Rosenthal

Executive Coach | Mentor | Advisor | Podcast Co-host Remote Control |