Judgement = comparison + criticism

Judgement = comparison + criticism

A slightly longer piece this time probably aimed more at practitioners; coaches, HR folk etc., and related to the hot topic of psychological safety and one of the ways in which we can get in the way of creating it.

Many years ago, in efforts to develop myself and move on from unhealthy patterns and behaviours, I used a mantra that included ‘no judgement, no blame, no criticism’. Along with positive statements I would repeat this in my daily meditation, until over time I was able to ‘rewire’ my attitudes and replace the insecurity driving these patterns with a stronger and deeper sense of who I am. 

Today, nearly 30 years later, I am reflecting again on what it is to judge. It often comes up in my coaching practice as clients look for ways to boost their impact, and with other coaches in supervision. ‘Being Judgemental’ is widely accepted as something to not do, and yet we all sometimes do so, without intending to.

Let’s think about it in evolutionary terms.

As humans, we are hard wired to need to be accepted into social groups. We have a nervous system that looks for cues of belonging or rejection. Millennia ago this system developed to keep us alive as being rejected by the tribe had devastating consequences. Today our highly sophisticated nervous system works alongside our ability to rationalise and apply logic, still operating however in essentially the same way as aeons ago and to the same end. 

What this means is that we constantly and usually unconsciously compare what we see, hear, and feel, with our own family/group social norms, our organisation expectations and benchmarks, and our own value system and preferences. 

We look for and compare all of the ways that we are different from each other, including of course how others behave. 

Our comparisons lead us to accept or reject, to welcome who we think would be friends and allies or to be wary of potential enemies and threats. 

So if it serves an important human need, why is it a problem?

As leaders and managers we constantly make evaluations, assessments and ratings. Our decisions require us to weigh things up whether it is a hiring decision, a performance evaluation, a project review, or anything. We do this weighing up pretty much every time we meet someone new, and it is fertile territory for our biases and our shadow parts to show up.

When we compare other people’s behaviours, attitudes, personalities etc. it is only a short step to either approving, or to taking a subtly critical ‘I am better than’ attitude. We forget that most people most of the time are doing their best, and that it’s ok to be different. In fact, it’s great that we are different! 

The comparisons we make become judgemental when we add criticism to them. When we find ourselves making a comparison and slipping into judgement this is almost always ‘felt’ by the other person even if we don’t actually say anything. Remember that their nervous system is working too. Neuroscience has shown us that behaviours that leave people feeling criticised affect their cortisol/adrenalin release, helping to destroy any hard won trust that has been created*.

Our aim is to make our comparisons with self-awareness, objectivity and integrity, and when we do this it works well. It works even better when we add kindness and understanding to the mix. 

Next time you find yourself making a critical judgement about someone ask yourself what comparison you are noticing or making. Then ask what it is that is making you critical. This can highlight something about yourself that is useful for you to look at, for example how you deal with difference. The answers can usually be found within, rather than with the other person. 

Comparing in ways that build trust is an important skill, particularly when someone has done something that has fallen short of what has been asked. 

Learning to accept and ultimately celebrate difference is a sure fire way to create a great work environment and the psychological safety that leads to a thriving and energised place to be.

*The neurochemistry of positive conversations (Glaser and Glaser, 2014, HBR)