Seeing past our value judgments

Ancient Chinese street punishment of a thief

In a time of change, one of the mistaken assumptions or ‘mis-blinks‘ we can easily make is value judgments. When people don’t behave in the ways 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’ in one situation can easily become ‘good’ in another:

“A city came under siege from a large army and for many months the people suffered. Day after day a notorious thief, locked up in jail, offered to help. Of course, 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 in the sleeping general’s bed.

“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 at once, all value judgments become potentially unreliable:

When we make value judgments we become complacent: locked-in to our ideas about the way the world used to work, cut off from opening up new possibilities. In a time of change, this constrains us.

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

Seeing past our value judgments reduces our risks and makes us more likely to achieve the outcomes we want:

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person — a customer, a colleague, yourself? Did that stop you getting the results you wanted? Are you currently judging someone as ‘good’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the risks they represent? Are you currently judging someone as ‘bad’ in a way that prevents you from seeing the contribution they might make? What impossible if you let go your judgments?

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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