Christopher Bolling
Taming the Judge: Working to Overcome our Judgment of Others

I have worked with more than a few leaders steeped in judgment when we began our work.  Sometimes that results in a “your dead to me mentality”: the leader has had a difficult interaction and chose to write someone off.  Sometimes it results in not challenging team members with new work because we’re “certain” they won’t rise to the challenge.

Judgment is beyond insidious.  When judgment of this nature prevails, there are more than a few side effects:

• Friction between team members results in a loss of effectiveness for leaders and the organization: Imagine that you’re no longer “playing” with a senior leadership team member. What impact does that have on everyone in the organization?  Your judgment is everyone’s loss – you’re “dead to me” is abdicating your leadership responsibility.

• Underperformance on the team: If you’ve written someone off and aren’t leaning (skillfully) into the difficult conversation, you’re effectively playing with a player down.

• Diminished followership: make no mistake that we read the energy in the room, and when we sense judgment toward others from a leader, we’re waiting for it to come our way, and we no longer feel psychologically safe.

• Stress, anxiety, frustration: In my experience, the stronger the judge, the more that we harbor stress, anxiety, and frustration.  We tend to carry the weight home at the end of the day.  Judgment becomes a load to carry until it’s either released or resolved.

We’ve all been there to some degree, and if you were to sit for a moment and reflect on your judgment's impact on you, others, and the organization, I’m sure it will become clear that it’s something to address.

So how?  

Here are a few strategies to consider.

Name it: Naming the judge and bringing him/her into your awareness is the first step in elevating your self-awareness.  Now get curious:

• How is this judgment serving me?  

• How is it holding me back?

• What would it take to release the judgment and move into a more productive place?

• Does the judgment arise under stress? Has it become a pattern that needs to be addressed?

• How does the judgment of others impact my effectiveness or influence the organization? What is my responsibility here?

Lean into empathy:  Judgement of others is a big move away from the empathetic response.  As we lean into empathy and explore the circumstances, we move toward, not away from, the person we’re judging.  If we seek to understand another’s perspective, we are open to providing support and deepening the connection rather than moving away from it.  Empathy is a keystone to effective leadership.

Meet people where they are (and provide productive feedback along the way): Often, our judgment focuses on ability - that someone isn’t at our level or that they’re incapable of performing at the level we expect.  Judgment gets in the way when we don’t meet people where they are and avoid the conversation – and that conversation can take many forms:

• Coaching: what might be getting in the way, and how can we help someone overcome their obstacles?

Feeback: Skillfully providing feedback is almost always an opportunity.  When we avoid feedback, we leave others to struggle.  And when they struggle under the weight of judgment, well, that sucks.

• Relationship building:  Giving voice to tension and acknowledging it is a way forward.  Avoiding the tension is a way of staying stuck.  If you’re working with a peer, and your relationship is strained, you must address it.  In my experience, working diligently to repair and rebuild is an effort worth undertaking.

Look for the good: Confirmation bias steps in once we judge another.  We see what we want to see to satisfy that inner judge.  This is a road to nowhere, and once we’re on this road, it’s a hard exit off.  Looking for the good – what’s right in the relationship, with the performance, with the person – allows us to step away from our judgment and be clear about the things that are going well, and there’s almost always something there to grab onto.  Optimist or pessimist?  Seeing what’s right and bringing a sense of optimism is a clear way forward.

Working to tame the judge is about developing emotional intelligence.  And the good news is that emotional intelligence is a skill game.  Once identified, we can focus on the skill we want to pick up and acknowledge what we’d like to leave behind.  What awaits you here is worth pursuing: higher performance and effectiveness, stronger relationships, and a greater sense of well-being.

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