Leading Yourself: “Writing People Off”

by | Apr 19, 2023 | Personal Growth, Professional Growth

We dismiss people in our lives who do not measure up to our expectations. People we see as failures. People who make us uncomfortable. People who challenge our thinking.

We determine they do not add value and write them off.

A common definition of writing people off — deciding that someone or something is not suitable or good enough to be successful. We base our perception on our experience, their reputation, or comments from others.

The perception we build forms a judgement, and we sort people into categories. High value. Some value. No Value. The outcome is we have a portfolio of people in our network, and others who are left out.

Sorting people into categories starts at an incredibly early age.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Canadian hockey players who are evaluated at ten years old, and placed on a rep team if they show more ability than other children. The sorting process is by birth date. Because youth players are registered in leagues based on their year of birth, the biggest and strongest players tend to be those born in the first few months of the year. Rep teams have better coaches, facilities, and more playing time.

Players who are not selected for the rep teams — well, you know the answer. They are written off and placed on house league teams with fewer benefits. I know about sorting athletes as I coached ice hockey in the United States for almost twenty years. As I look back, I underestimated the impact of writing off young athletes. The players I did not select had other skills and abilities that would have helped our team – beyond size and raw talent. I did not appreciate the stigma for the players who were not selected, and the impact on their parents.

This hockey example can be applied to the workplace. An example in my professional life was a loud, assertive employee who frequently challenged my authority as his supervisor. He constantly asked me for answers on why we were making changes. To be honest, he tried my patience and I separated myself from him whenever possible. By writing him off I ignored his thoughts on my decision making — a professional weakness. I wrote him off and it was costly.

While I have written others off, I have also been dismissed in my career and sports. These memories remind me of what it is like on the other side. Today, I coach leaders to be inclusive and seek diverse perspectives. My past of writing athletes and colleagues off has prepared me to lead others, and myself, more effectively.

Our natural tendency at work is to find a comfortable place, with comfortable people, to keep our world simple and predictable. We narrow our associations to likeminded colleagues. Our comfort can stunt our leadership development.

We excel as leaders when we learn through resistance. New perspectives from different voices will help us move to the next level.

Three keys to avoid writing people off at work:

Suspend Judgement

  • “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” A familiar saying that applies to relationships. What you see is not always what you get.

True Intentions

  • Think about how you embrace people beyond your comfort zone. What is your default interpretation of someone else’s intentions?

Second Chances

  • Just as you have been forgiven for failure, give others the benefit of the doubt. Failure is part of our growth, and we learn when we embrace others who have had setbacks.

None of us wake up each day and say, “I can’t wait to write off some people today.” We have good intentions, yet the pressure and complexity of our work relationships can be challenging to navigate. We leave some people behind. Our role as leaders is to lift others up, to help them embrace opportunities. We miss when we dismiss.


Leading Your Team

An excellent article on how to get feedback you need to grow. I particularly enjoyed the sections on listening to understand versus respond, and types of feedback.

How Leaders Can Get the Feedback they Need

Read to Lead

Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience — old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e-readers.

My April 2023 favorites:

Moon Over Jessup by Jamila Minnicks
A novel featuring the story of Alice Young who leaves her home for a new life in Birmingham, Alabama. On her bus ride, she stops at the All-Black community of New Jessup and never leaves. The residents of New Jessup have elected to resist integration and maintain a separate existence. I was unfamiliar with the term All-Black, and her journey provided me with a new way to look at integration. Alice encounters the tradeoffs of her community and encounters the struggles we continue to have when it comes to race relations.

American Ramble by Neil King
In the spring of 2021, Neil King walked 330 miles from his Washington DC home to New York City. His 25-day walk was a journey through history and a reflection on where things are today. I was impressed by how he studied, engaged, and appreciated the legacy of each area he visited. He encounters interesting people along the way, as he is dodging cars, and marvels at how much we miss around us in our busy lives. His mindfulness encouraged me to engage in my surroundings in a new way.