Seeing past our value judgments

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

But there is huge 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 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 decided to listen to his plan and offer him a chance.

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

“And on the next morning the enemy general gathered his troops and left, for 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 the opposite is also true.

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

Whenever we make a value judgment we are being lazy and complacent: 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 either as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ either way; then assess the risks and opportunities in the situation and look for the opportunities to move forward.

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

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person — a customer, a colleague, a political opponent, 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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