Hidden Judgments

Hesitancy in judgment is the only true mark of the thinker.

Dagobert D. Runes

I have had a number of labels in my life, just like all of us.  Clearly labels can have obvious and negative sources of bias, and without discounting that, I want to talk about a more insidious cause and effect in business. An hidden or unaware type of judgement that is disguised and must be combated to be an effective leader.

We often get labels whenever we make an opinion known that someone else may not agree with.  Think for a moment about how easy it is to get a label.  If I said with conviction that “the Earth is flat!” (Spoiler alert!  It isn’t!) you’d label me one way instantly.  I believe it is much easier to get a bad label than it is a good one.  In the same way that trust is built over time and repeated actions, you can earn a quality label, like nice, helpful or smart.  These labels, both good and bad, are a form of judgement on a person’s abilities or attitude and can dangerously color our actions and decisions, unless we identify and make sure we’re cognizant of them.

At one particular time in my career, when I was in charge of development, I had the pleasure of managing a really quality team of engineers.  I believed in their abilities and I lived and worked along side them through many triumphs and toils.  I had a tendency to be overly optimistic whenever estimating the time that it would take for my team to accomplish something.  It was not altogether wrong for people to perceive this, I was optimistic because I saw the potential in them and worked hard to ensure they could operate at their highest levels, but in reality, that wasn’t always possible.  In fact, I perceived that people were at times biased (negatively) towards me because of my bias (positively) towards my team.  I felt utterly convinced every day that I was being realistic in my assessments, and I don’t think I was wrong to think that.  I was optimistic because I believed in my team and in a best case scenario, I knew they could do it.  I also wanted to push them to be their best and giving someone extra time isn’t as motivating, but I digress from my main point.

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 2:1

I can think of a few other times in my career where I was similarly perceived to be negative, even though I felt like I was again being realistic.  I recall being a programmer on a very large project with a deadline that might have seemed realistic (aside: it was contractually required so it didn’t actually matter if it was realistic or not), but I had worked on the team long enough to see that it was not going to hit that deadline with quality.  In this case and others similarly, I raised my objections and redoubled my personal efforts to make as much of an impact as I could.

Another recent role at a startup, required a lot of problem solving, as well as a lot of hard conversations.  Adjustments to staffing based on the growing company and shifting priorities, or budgetary concerns that are a part of any startup life.  I approach any problem like these with all the tools I have learned over my career in problem solving and always attempt to solve it the best way possible.  So, if that leads to a negative outcome or recommendation, like downsizing, or realignments based on our current and future needs, does that mean that I am a negative person?

So, was I being called negative because I had doubts that I expressed or optimistic because I had hopes or was it an accurate label I had earned in these cases?  If I am authentic and honest here, does it actually matter if people think I’m being negative in any conversation, as long as my motivations are toward the team and company entirely? I submit that it should not, but I think that is the issue here.  Calling someone any label in the workplace is likely an attempt to discredit the opinion of that person in the first place, even if it’s subconsciously.

Our judgments judge us, and nothing reveals us, exposes our weaknesses, more ingeniously than the attitude of pronouncing upon our fellows.

Paul Valéry

Let’s take this a step further… what if I am feeling truly negative about something in my life.  It could be my job, health, politics, etc.  I think that being cognizant of those feelings and working to identifying the source of them can go a long way towards removing their power over our lives.  I can choose to dwell in that negative space and mope around, or I can acknowledge the frustration and move on. I can work to resolve the issues or come to peace with the conflict.  If I am chosing to mope, does that then qualify me for being a negative person?  Is it possible to be negative about something personally, but still be optimistic in a professional setting?  I think it should be, and while good days and bad days happen, we must always continue to truly serve.

I believe that it is easier to discount an opinion based on your opinion of the person rather than to analyze its merit and decide objectively.  But as leaders in an industry or a company, it is incumbent upon us to identify personal biases and make decisions based on the right direction for our team (first) and our company (second).  That line should hold regardless of our attitude or the perception of us so that we can consistently lead well.

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