Seeing past our value judgments

Ancient Chinese street punishment of a thief

One of the mistaken assumptions we can easily make in 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 ‘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 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 the people rejected him without a second thought. But he persisted, and after several months of suffering under the siege they decided to listen to his plan and offer him a chance.

“That night, using his skills, the thief crept unseen into the enemy camp. Leaving a dagger in the sleeping general’s tent, he 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, 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 vice versa.

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

When we make a value judgment we become complacent: we become locked into our ideas about the way the world used to work — and in a time of change, this stops us opening up new possibilities.

Better instead to make a clear assessment of the person’s strengths and weaknesses, accept them as they are, but do not judge them either as wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’; then and the risks and opportunities in a 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 takes us one step closer to becoming antifragile.

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person — a customer, a colleague, 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 if you let go of your value 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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