To Be Judged

Ok, stop what you’re doing. No really. Stop. Stop and listen.

I got some feedback from our VP of engineering,” he said. He’s co-founder and COO of a cool startup based in Berlin and San Francisco. His marching orders: clean it up and focus the operations. I’ve known him for years, and here we are again.

His primary challenge has always been communication. He’s one of those data-driven people. Logical, factual, confused by emotions. This mixed with a highly ambitious need to get shit done. On the Insights personality profile wheel he’s a bright red and blue. Efficient, driven by data. A dangerous mix for a leader.

We’ve made a lot of progress together. He listens better. Processes what he hears. And respects the investment of time upfront to learn what people care about and how to involve them in the solution. But he still struggles from time to time. When people get in his way during a stressful moment he can chop them up before he realizes what he’s done.

I ask, “What did he say?” He explains, “He had three main points; I lacked context when talking to the team, was too assertive, and the worst thing, I sounded judgmental.” All three are the things we’ve talked about for years. This in his first eight weeks in this new role. Not good.

We walk through the conversation. It takes some time to get all the facts out. At the end, I ask, “What do you think about when you look at data or facts? When you’re trying to figure out how to fix a software bug or some sort of hardware implementation?” “I don’t know that I really think about anything except look for answers and data points that will help me understand the problem,” he responds somewhat incredulously.

Think about that approach for a minute,” I say. “You don’t judge the facts or data. You simply take them at face value, right?” He agrees. I then suggest he do the same with people. “Look at them as sources of data and facts. Listen to them, search for truth, and fight the urge to jump ahead or to judge them.” This made sense to him.

This conversation made me think too. One of the biggest issues for us all is judging others. We try not to but we do it all day long. How someone says something, how they respond, the look on their face, the clothes they wear, the tattoos they sport on their arm.

It’s a natural protection mechanism that serves us well as a species. It allows us to quickly assess danger. Gives us time to fight or run. But as we get more socially sophisticated, it works against us. Clouds our ability to understand the person standing in front of us.

Here’s my list for stopping the bad side of judgement:

  1. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions.
  2. Look past the packaging, their style, their demeanor, even their choice of words.
  3. Listen for facts, strive for clarity, and find commonality in view and positions.
  4. Forget about your interests and needs. Focus on theirs.
  5. Seek understanding. Think about the issue/problem/challenge from their experience not yours.

In my twenties I had the privilege of working with homeless children in the streets of New York. It was the 1980s. New York was a war zone. I landed on a concept called, “opposite world.” It means what you see, feel, think is generally opposite from what is real. For example, these street kids looked disheveled, inhuman, mean. But in truth, they were thoughtful, loyal, smart as hell. Even funny and creative. This helped me get past my predilection for judging others.

Some years later as a suburban father, my opposite world was put to the test. I took our 10-year-old daughter, Alex, and her friend Michaella to see Pink in concert. It was at the Warfield Theatre in the rougher part of San Francisco. Everyone was dressed in black, covered in tattoos with every form of piercing on their face and head.

As we stood in the back of the crowd, two large tattooed and pierced men walked back to us and politely asked if they could take my two girls up to the front of the stage so they could see Pink up close and personal. I was thrilled. My daughter was too. But Michaela protested.

After some prodding she gave in. These two guys scooped them up on their shoulders and walked to the front of the crowd. It was a spectacle. I watched from the back as my daughter and her friend had the time of their life; laughing, singing, and being the center of attention.

At the end of the concert, when the men brought them back to me, they were both bubbling with joy. “That was the best!!” screamed Michaela. Our daughter Alex agreed. Yep, the world is the opposite of what you think.

Being judgmental is natural to humans. It’s an essential tool for our ability to succeed in life. But like my COO friend, our judgmentalness needs to be processed, matured, and made to flex in the moment. Otherwise we end up missing the best moments of our life.