Seeing past our value judgments

Ancient Chinese street punishment of a thief

In a time of change, one of the mis-blinks or mistaken assumptions we can easily make is called value judgments. When people don’t behave the way we want them to, it is easy to judge them as being ‘bad’, ‘stupid’, or ‘irrelevant’.

But there is a difference between what a person does and who a person is. A story from ancient China illustrates how qualities and behaviours considered ‘bad’ under one set of circumstances can easily become ‘good’ in another:

“A city came under siege from a large army and for many months the people suffered. Then one day a notorious thief, locked up in the jail, offered to help. At first the people rejected him. After all, he was such a bad man. But after a while they listened to his plan and decided to offer him a chance.

“That night, using his skills, the thief crept unseen into the enemy’s camp. He left a dagger in the sleeping general’s tent and crept away. 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 on the sleeping general’s pillow.

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

When the situation changes, behaviours that used to be considered ‘bad’ can easily become ‘good’, and vice versa.

This means that when so much in our world is changing all at once, all value judgments become potentially unreliable:

When we make value judgments we become complacent. We become locked-in to our ideas about the way the world used to work. And in a time of change, this might no longer hold true.

Better instead to make a clear assessment of the person’s strengths and weaknesses, or the risks and opportunities in a situation, but not to judge them either as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

But recognise that value judgments also come pre-packed into the language we use. Even simple words like ‘strength’, ‘weakness’, ‘opportunity’, and ‘threat’ pre-judge the situations we face and our competencies for dealing with them. But if we assume a situation is a ‘threat’ then we don’t bother looking for the opportunities it might hide. If we assume we have a ‘strength’ then we stop looking for better ways of doing things, which leaves gaps for others to find. And if we assume we have a weakness then we will never try to do the thing that millions of others might have stepped in and supported us to achieve.

By learning to spot our value judgments, we reduce our risks and make ourselves more likely to achieve the outcomes we want.

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person — a customer, a manager, a subordinate, or even yourself? Did that hinder you from getting the results you wanted? Are you currently judging someone as ‘good’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the risks they represent? Or are you labelling a person as ‘bad’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the contribution they might make?

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

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Photo By The British Library via

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