Seeing past our value judgments

One of the mistakes we can easily make in a time of change is to assume that when people don’t behave in the ways we want them to, they must be ‘stupid’, ‘bad’, ‘unimportant’, or ‘corrupt’. All these thoughts are value judgments.

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 the jail, offered to help. But he was such a bad and low status person that the people dismissed him without a second thought, taunting and ridiculing him instead.

“After several months of suffering, the people finally listened to the thief’s 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 and stabbed a dagger into a table, then crept away. The next morning the enemy general was astonished to find the dagger. Frightened 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 deep into the sleeping general’s pillow.

“When the enemy general woke the next morning, he 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 and people that we used to judge as ‘bad’ can easily become ‘good’. And the opposite is also true. A leader or celebrity who we once looked up to might easily turn out to have been involved in sexual misconduct. An undocumented migrant (automatically seen as a ‘bad person’ by many) might climb up to a balcony and save a child’s life. And so on.

Whenever we make a value judgment we are being lazy: we are locking ourselves into our old ideas about the way the world used to work. And when the whole world is changing this makes all our value judgments potentially unreliable. It also holds us back from seeing the new possibilities that are emerging.

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 intrinsically either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Like the ancient Chinese thief, they might have a skill that could transform the situation. Because there is a huge difference between what a person does and who a person is.

Seeing past our value judgments reduces our risks, increases our opportunities, and makes us more likely to achieve the outcomes we most want. All of which takes us another step forward towards becoming antifragile.

Have you ever made a value judgment about a person 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 judging someone as ‘good’ in a way that is blinding you to 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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