What’s the danger in putting people into boxes?

Kara J
2 min readJan 13, 2021

I have encountered many team-building and leadership exercises that aim to help people understand themselves and others better by categorizing people based on a set of behavioral or preference questions.

People with a background in research and science understand that you can’t just make up a quiz and results based on your opinion or feelings and say it’s true. However, that is essentially what a lot of these team-building and leadership activities/books/guides are doing.

Have you heard of MBTI, DISC, and the concept of “multipliers” vs “diminishers”? What do these three things have in common?

All are a) not valid measures of a person b) not reliable and c) rampantly used in organizations to “help” people understand themselves and others better.

They also all put people into imaginary boxes that don’t actually exist. The danger with doing this is that it can lead you to not seeing the person for who they truly are.

For instance, let’s say you manage a person named Sharon. Sharon had a bad day and behaved in a way that caused you to classify her as a “diminisher” because you were reading the book Multipliers at the time. You have now placed her into a box based on a single point in time, which could end up coloring performance and promotion decisions you make about her in the future. But her behavior was because she was having a bad day and not because that is how she is as a person.

I think that categorizing people in this way also prevents us from asking “why?” Once you have slapped a label on someone, you stop wondering about who they are and what makes them tick. You think you have them all figured out, and will start making decisions about them based on an inaccurate test result that doesn’t define their being.

This is the risk we run when we rely on unreliable tests or categorization tools that haven’t been validated by psychologists. It is best to take any kind of model or method proposed in a management self-help book or a test delivered by a well-meaning HR department with a grain of salt, and realize that there is always more going on under a person’s surface than you know.

If you want to understand a coworker, try getting to know them on a 1:1 basis — work with them, talk to them, share with them. Your experience with the person over time will give you an understanding of who they are much better than anything else.

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Kara J

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.