Seeing past our value judgments

One of the many mistaken assumptions we can easily make in a time of change is that when people don’t behave in the way we want them to we label them as being ‘bad’, ‘corrupt’, ‘stupid’, or ‘unimportant’. These are all value judgments.

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 and worthless person that the people rejected him without a second thought, taunting and ridiculing him.

“But after several months of suffering, the people at last 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 entered the sleeping general’s tent, stabbed a dagger into a table, and crept away. The next morning the general was astonished to find the dagger. Scared and angry, he shouted at 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 pillow.

“And 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’. And the opposite is also true. A leader or celebrity you once looked up to might turn out to have been involved in sexual misconductA country that you thought of as a strong ally might suddenly start to behave strangelyAn undocumented immigrant (automatically a ‘bad person’ to many citizens) might climb up to a balcony and save a child’s life.

Whenever we make a value judgment we are being lazy: locking ourselves into our ideas about the way the world used to work. And when the whole world is changing, all our value judgments become potentially unreliable and prevent 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, and not to judge them as automatically either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. They are a mixture of the two, just like you and me and everybody else.

Seeing past our value judgments reduces our risks, increases our opportunities, and makes us more likely to achieve the outcomes we want.

And it brings us another 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 prevented you from 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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