What's in a label?
In 2020, Nancy Kline made an important addition to the definition of Information in a Thinking Environment. Where information had previously been defined as “supplying facts and dismantling denial”, it now includes “recognising social context”. In this post, I consider this from both a societal and organisational perspective to see how it can help us to recognise and honour the differences in our collective experience.
The addition of “social context” invites us to consider the information, present in any room full of people, that is rarely acknowledged. The information that is perhaps even actively denied. That is, the labels that are placed on us, or that we place on ourselves, and the limiting assumptions that build up because of them.
How often do we come together to think and explicitly acknowledge that and the impact that our context could have on our thinking?
Social context is both shared, and individual
A number of years ago, I was sitting around a table with a group of people at a networking event. They all performed a similar role to me, in similar businesses. As the evening went on, something emerged that I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with.
There were slightly more women than men sitting around the table, and as we talked it transpired that while all of the men were equity stakeholders in their businesses, none of the women were.
Until that evening I had never even considered that my gender might have held me back in any way. I had probably actively denied that it could have been the case. My assumption was that the world rewards merit and hard work - that’s what my parents taught me. The realisation that perhaps that was not the case, that my gender could have had an impact on how I was treated professionally, shook me deeply.
It was late to have this realisation, I’ll grant you! But it shifted something for me.
When “recognising social context” was added to the definition of information in 2020, I immediately thought of that evening. If we can begin to recognise and name the labels that society places on us and what assumptions come with them, maybe we can start to dismantle those assumptions, one at a time.
For me, simply recognising that perhaps there was a link between my gender and my situation, has opened my eyes, gradually to the assumptions I make about how I “should” behave. Made me see that sometimes I could stand up for myself a little bit more, be a little bit more assertive and clearer on my boundaries. Not assuming that to do so makes me overbearing or demanding (assumptions I thought the world held about assertive women).
I still find standing up for myself terrifying! But I now see that I’m standing on the shoulders of all of the many women who came before me, fighting for their right to be treated fairly. And that gives me more strength to do it. There is safety in numbers after all.
What’s in a label, anyway?
As a middle-class white woman growing up in the UK, I am aware that I lead a very privileged life. The limits on my life due to my social “labels” are minimal in comparison to many in the UK, let alone across the world. But I have realised that they do still exist.
When I considered what labels could be applied to my life “working mother, white woman, able bodied, divorcee, woman over 40, slightly overweight….” I started to realise that I naturally think from within that context. From within the assumptions, I make about myself and the world, based on those labels.
And that those who share one or more of my labels, will likely share at least some of my context and assumptions.
If we can start to recognise this when we come together, then perhaps we can begin to put them to one side for a while as we think together. Perhaps even begin to question them and break them down.
This has made me wonder how the idea of social context, and the assumptions that come with it might also apply professionally.
Professional hierarchy and social context
We become conditioned by our labels, and expectations built on our experiences. Perhaps I am in sales, perhaps a middle manager, perhaps I am blue collar, or white collar, or a high-powered executive or a receptionist, a scientist, a lawyer, or a nurse.…” all come with associated assumptions. All have a position within a perceived hierarchy of importance.
In one team I work very closely with, we are very deliberately flattening this hierarchy. Shifting our culture towards one where even though one person may have more responsibility than another, they are not any more important. Every cog is equally essential in the running, maintenance, and development of, the machine. We’re an interdependent system.
But there was a different, more hierarchical culture that we all worked within, in the past.
Both in the wider industry (financial services), and within the organisation, traditionally hierarchic leadership has been the norm. The assumption that you might be “just” an Administrator, “too young” to have the experience you need to be truly valuable, even sometimes “just” a woman has been the common experience.
At times, I don’t think we sufficiently honour that context. When things have been a certain way for a long time, our expectations are built on that experience. Letting go of that is hard, and it impacts our ability to think independently as ourselves.
When we recognise and name it though, things can start to change. We can start to replace the assumptions borne from our experience and how we might have been treated, often simply by seeing that they are there.
And the effect on psychological safety of doing so is, I think, immediate. Suddenly, we become less defensive of our reactions because they feel more reasonable. They are in context, we can name that context, and so recognise our reactions for the threat response that they are. Our amygdala can calm down, and we can start to think together a bit more rationally.
When we recognise that, we can think together more clearly, question our assumptions, and make some amazing breakthroughs.
If you would like to discuss how you could apply this and other aspects of the Thinking Environment to your work or life, I would love to hear from you. Please just drop me an email or use this link to get in touch for a chat.