Seeing past our value judgments

One of the many mistaken assumptions we can easily make during a time of change is value judgments. When people don’t behave in the way we want them to it is easy to judge them as being ‘bad’, ‘stupid’, or ‘irrelevant’.

But there is a huge difference between what a person does and who a person is.

A story from ancient China illustrates how qualities and behaviours considered ‘bad’ in one situation can easily become ‘good’ in another:

“A city came under siege and for many weeks the people suffered. Day after day a notorious thief, locked up in jail, offered to help. But he was such a bad person that the people rejected him without a second thought.

“After several months of suffering, the people finally listened to his plan and decided to offer him a chance.

“That night, using his skills, the thief crept unseen into the enemy camp. He left a dagger stabbed into a table in the sleeping general’s tent and crept away. The next morning the general was astonished to find the dagger there. Scared and angry, he told his men to double the guard.

“On the second night, the thief again crept between the enemy sentries and left another dagger, this time plunged into the sleeping general’s bed.

“The next morning the enemy general gathered his troops and marched away. Because he knew that if he stayed another night the third dagger would be left in him.”

When the situation changes, behaviours that used to be considered ‘bad’ can easily become ‘good’. The opposite is also true.

And when so much in our world is changing fast this means that all value judgments become potentially unreliable:

Whenever we make a value judgment we are being lazy: we are locking ourselves into our ideas about the way the world used to work. And in a time of change, this prevents us from opening up new possibilities.

Better instead to make a clear assessment of the person’s strengths and weaknesses, accept them as they are, but not to judge them as either intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Like everyone else they are a mixture. Then assess the situation and look for the opportunities to move forward.

Seeing past our value judgments reduces our risks, it increases our opportunities, and it makes us more likely to achieve the outcomes we want. It also brings us a step closer to becoming antifragile.

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person — a customer, a colleague, a politician, or even yourself — in a way that stopped you getting the results you wanted? Are you currently judging someone as ‘bad’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the contribution they might make? Are you currently judging someone as ‘good’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the risks they represent? What possibilities would emerge if you let go of your value judgments and preconceptions?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By The British Library via

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