On Leading Judgmentally

Is it me, or is there an epi­dem­ic out there right now regard­ing the judg­ments of lead­ers about those who work for them? I hear it over and over: “How do I get them to step up?” “They don’t work as hard as I do — they don’t have the same work eth­ic.” “Why don’t they just do their jobs?” “How come the sim­plest things, turn­ing in time sheets for instance, results in my hav­ing to nag and nag?” And we are not talk­ing about peo­ple new to the work­place. It’s the expe­ri­enced man­agers who are not “step­ping up” or “work­ing as hard,” peo­ple who have been in their posi­tions for some time, who appear to be the prob­lem. “I should­n’t have to remind them about any of this stuff?”

The tone of these judg­ments is one of frus­tra­tion, anger, dis­ap­point­ment and self-blame. At a recent work­shop, for exam­ple, the head of a pub­lic ser­vice agency com­plained, “After tak­ing this job I tried to engage the man­agers in build­ing a vision togeth­er and real­ly tak­ing on the chal­lenges we col­lec­tive­ly face, but at a point one of them spoke up to ask, ‘Look, can’t you just tell us what you want?’ ” There was a kind of mys­ti­fied dis­ap­point­ment in the agency head­’s voice as he spoke. Again, it was one of those things the oth­ers were just sup­posed to get, part of the job, stand­ing up to help guide the agency, not dis­place their own lead­er­ship onto him. He had found him­self becom­ing increas­ing­ly judg­men­tal and auto­crat­ic — “the eas­i­er road,” he said.

cobalt

Cobalt light in a local city park

Part of the con­text, of course, is what has hap­pened over the past few years to orga­ni­za­tions because of lack of resources and because of fear. Peo­ple are hun­kered down, doing tasks as if tasks were the only part of the work that mat­tered any­more. Get it done! Get it done! Get it done! When I talk with lead­ers and they become grad­u­al­ly safer and more open, tasks some­times seem to be their only world. They feel the weight of it acute­ly; their sole val­ue in what they can make hap­pen. Every­thing else — every­thing else — is a risk, a fluff, a non-val­ue-added dis­trac­tion from the real­i­ty that there is bare­ly enough time, bare­ly enough mon­ey, bare­ly enough ener­gy to get on with what must be accom­plished in a world where every sin­gle stake­hold­er except them­selves is to be sat­is­fied first.

This giv­ing over of the self of the leader is what, I believe, then results in the symp­tom of dis­tress called com­plain­ing, called judg­ing oth­ers. When the lead­ers give up them­selves because of the pres­sure, it is entire­ly under­stand­able that crit­i­ciz­ing oth­ers becomes a nat­ur­al out­come, the option called emo­tion­al relief. In turn this leads to self-judg­ment. “I should­n’t need to com­plain.” Pret­ty soon, this can lead to col­lud­ing in a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy: even the lead­ers with the best of inten­tions begin to say, “just tell me what to do.”

I sup­pose I could insert here advice about hav­ing the guts to clar­i­fy real expec­ta­tions legit­i­mate­ly placed on oth­er lead­ers, or make sug­ges­tions about hold­ing oth­ers account­able, about authen­tic engage­ment and rela­tion­ship build­ing, about men­tor­ing and learn­ing and telling the truth, but all of that is real­ly sec­ondary to the dark­er, more destruc­tive thing going on — which is the com­modi­tiz­ing of peo­ple. Because frankly today the deep­er mes­sage is that peo­ple mat­ter much less than the tasks at hand. And that com­modi­tiz­ing first and fore­most is hap­pen­ing with the lead­ers themselves. 

In this trans­ac­tion­al world, all of us can be changed out more eas­i­ly; all of us can be waved aside. The inner per­son only mat­ters if it is devot­ed to some­thing larg­er: the mis­sion, the clients, the cus­tomers, the boss­es, the Board, the mon­ey. Lord knows, the mon­ey. We’re all sec­ondary to that, and more than we’ve ever been. This is the hole that we’ve col­lec­tive­ly dug out of giv­ing, out of putting the work first, out of self-vic­tim­iz­ing and com­pro­mis­ing who we actu­al­ly are and what we tru­ly need. What our judg­ments of oth­ers do is remind us that we are still in there some­place, still alive. Our com­plaints about those who work for us con­firm our val­ue via our com­par­i­son to those less pow­er­ful than ourselves.

It’s the same old sto­ry, isn’t it? The ever-present risk of the loss of our own human­i­ty in favor of some­thing else for some­body else where we too often claim “no choice.” What’s real­ly risky these days as lead­ers is stand­ing up for our human­i­ty, stand­ing up for our intrin­sic val­ue in the midst of the pain of our sys­tems and cul­tures we inhab­it. Stand­ing up to say, “This isn’t work­ing. We need a bet­ter way, togeth­er.”

What’s to be said about such a trend oth­er than this, that it’s heart­break­ing and that the very first thing we need to do is to stop. Stop long enough to pay atten­tion. Stop just long enough to remind our­selves who we real­ly are before choos­ing where next to invest our energies. 

sailboat

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14 Comments

  • Inter­est­ing piece Dan. I agree whole­heart­ed­ly. We have a gen­er­a­tional divide, not only in the work­place, but every­where. Nev­er before have younger gen­er­a­tions had the infor­ma­tion avail­able to them as at present. Plus younger peo­ple learn faster and eas­i­er. Man­agers (Boomers and some Genx’s) have only their expe­ri­ence to fall back on, since they are at a learn­ing disadvantage.

    Man­age­r­i­al defen­sive­ness is a result of inse­cu­ri­ty. They’re scared. Rather than embrace the Mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion as assets and peers, they treat them as they would their children.

    I believe those man­agers that accept what they don’t know and find ways to evolve will find a loy­al team in Mil­len­ni­als. Those that don’t, will become irrelevant.

  • Excel­lent post Dan, as usual. 

    I res­onat­ed with the whole thing and my heart and soul has words the mouth does­n’t feel like speak­ing so I’ll sim­ply high­light some of your quotes. 

    Specif­i­cal­ly want to empha­size the chron­ic ten­den­cy to con­sid­er humans to be an inter­rup­tion. ‘You’re inter­rupt­ing me. I“m too busy for you.…AND too ‘impor­tant’ for you…’ (lat­ter part implied)

    Peo­ple are hun­kered down, doing tasks as if tasks were the only part of the work that mat­tered any­more. Get it done! Get it done! Get it done! When I talk with lead­ers and they become grad­u­al­ly safer and more open, tasks some­times seem to be their only world. They feel the weight of it acute­ly; their sole val­ue in what they can make hap­pen. Every­thing else — every­thing else — is a risk, a fluff, a non-val­ue-added dis­trac­tion from the real­i­ty that there is bare­ly enough time, bare­ly enough mon­ey, bare­ly enough ener­gy to get on with what must be accom­plished in a world where every sin­gle stake­hold­er except them­selves is to be sat­is­fied first.

    On a lit­tle more integrity…please.…

    I sup­pose I could insert here advice about hav­ing the guts to clar­i­fy real expec­ta­tions legit­i­mate­ly placed on oth­er lead­ers, or make sug­ges­tions about hold­ing oth­ers account­able, about authen­tic engage­ment and rela­tion­ship build­ing, about men­tor­ing and learn­ing and telling the truth, but all of that is real­ly sec­ondary to the dark­er, more destruc­tive thing going on — which is the com­modi­tiz­ing of people.

    And last but not least… 

    It’s the same old sto­ry, isn’t it? The ever-present risk of the loss of our own human­i­ty in favor of some­thing else for some­body else where we too often claim “no choice.” What’s real­ly risky these days as lead­ers is stand­ing up for our human­i­ty, stand­ing up for our intrin­sic val­ue in the midst of the pain of our sys­tems and cul­tures we inhab­it. Stand­ing up to say, “this isn’t work­ing. We need a bet­ter way, together.”

    Thanks for shar­ing your heart Dan. AS always, I appre­ci­ate the REAL from you. Very refresh­ing in a world that too often refers the ‘spin’…

  • Dear Clay~

    Thank you so much for com­ment­ing here. While I was not in this post speak­ing direct­ly about the ten­sion between boomer and mil­len­ni­al employ­ees, I com­plete­ly agree it’s a prob­lem. Judg­ment about mil­len­ni­als is a cop out of the first order, a form of reverse agism and dis­tinc­tive­ly mal­adap­tive. My favorite sup­port site on this sub­ject is Jon Mertz’s Thin Dif­fer­ence. I love his work to bring under­stand­ing and break down barriers.

    Again, Clay, wel­come and thank you so much for stop­ping by!

    ~Dan

  • Dear Saman­tha~

    As always, thanks for the mir­ror. It’s great to know which of these words speaks loud­est. I so appre­ci­ate that feed­back and your ongo­ing sup­port for my work.
    I’m honored!

    All the best
    ~Dan

    PS, Sor­ry about the prob­lem using BOLD. Some­times it seems like I have to kind of wait for it, too. Oth­er­wise, haven’t got a clue what the prob­lem might be!

  • Yes…the emo­tion­al release of giv­ing our­selves per­mis­sion to reduce the Other…ever the temptation.

  • Dear Dan,

    Every­thing in this piece res­onates with my expe­ri­ence of what is hap­pen­ing in the work­place (and basi­cal­ly — we see this every­where in dif­fer­ent forms). 

    Now that we know more from social neu­ro­science about what our bod­ies con­vey in com­mu­ni­ca­tion we know that these atti­tudes are con­stant­ly being “felt” with co-work­ers. There is a kind of despair in so much of it and to Clay’s point — fear is the driver. 

    Read­ing late­ly more deeply about trau­ma, I’ve come to learn that we have to more broad­ly define what its like for peo­ple to work like this — day after day — with so lit­tle emo­tion­al sup­port. And in many cas­es, abuse.

    As Saman­tha point out, humans are being per­ceived as inter­rup­tions to the end­less tread­mill of tasks. I hear it often — He/she is great — they get things done!

    Of course all of this is unsus­tain­able — which is part of what is going on now. The sta­tus quo is unrav­el­ing in hun­dreds of ways. And it all flies in the face of the rhetoric that many com­pa­nies and lead­ers are pro­mot­ing and try­ing to “brand,” being more social, peo­ple first, etc. 

    Out­stand­ing piece. Sen­si­tive and insight­ful as always. Thank you for it.

    Best~
    Louise

  • Hi Louise!

    I just want to pipe in on one of your com­ments that TOTALLY res­onat­ed w/ me as well. 

    You said,

    The sta­tus quo is unrav­el­ing in hun­dreds of ways. And it all flies in the face of the rhetoric that many com­pa­nies and lead­ers are pro­mot­ing and try­ing to “brand,” being more social, peo­ple first, etc.

    I could­n’t agree more! 

    Now I also want to say that I“m not even remote­ly refer­ring to ‘per­fec­tion’. I believe all of us (Dan, you, I, and oth­ers) are refer­ring to a chron­ic and per­va­sive ‘issue’ that goes well beyond a minor lapse of integri­ty or blip here and there. 

    Exam­ple: We can see what you are say­ing when peo­ple like to TALK about ‘ser­vant lead­er­ship’… we can have CHATS about what it means to prac­tice ser­vant lead­er­ship. And then every­one will turn around and pat our­selves and each oth­er on the back for how bril­liant we were able to TALK about what that means and what it looks like and yet.…

    Yet.….

    When do we actu­al­ly EXPERIENCE this in our REAL day to day lives? 

    And this is the crux of the issue. Talk­ing about hon­esty and integri­ty does­n’t mean it is being lived. Writ­ing about ser­vant lead­er­ship isn’t prac­tic­ing it. Just because a ‘brand’ is all about love and com­pas­sion in ‘words’, does­n’t mean it is being prac­ticed in real life. It is often just POPULAR. Those are the ‘ideas’ that are easy for peo­ple to buy into and may gar­ner trust in the begin­ning yet unless it is LIVED…it’s not real. No integrity. 

    Thanks Louise.

    PS: I’ll be read­ing through your lat­est post on empa­thy at some point between now and over the weekend. : )

  • Hi Saman­tha~

    To be fair, it’s safe to say that peo­ple “like us,” are a tiny frac­tion of the pre­vail­ing forces in cor­po­rate life (and most oth­er insti­tu­tions). Maybe we’re the bell­wether for emerg­ing trends that even­tu­al­ly impact prac­tices — I am sure most of us would like to think that.

    But every time any of us go into sys­tems like this we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in an eco­nom­ic jug­ger­naut that has pro­found impli­ca­tions for the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple. Often peo­ple doing this work have to do a lot of “shape shift­ing” to help orga­ni­za­tions to see beyond their bot­tom line thinking.

    My focus is on peo­ple — that what keeps me “in the game.” My com­mit­ment is to keep rais­ing up human­i­ty in every­thing I do. I find this is almost always con­sis­tent with what orga­ni­za­tions need — even when they don’t artic­u­late that initially.

    Thanks Saman­tha and Dan for let­ting us use this as a pub­lic space!

  • H Louse,

    You wrote:

    To be fair, it’s safe to say that peo­ple “like us,” are a tiny frac­tion of the pre­vail­ing forces in cor­po­rate life (and most oth­er insti­tu­tions). Maybe we’re the bell­wether for emerg­ing trends that even­tu­al­ly impact prac­tices – I am sure most of us would like to think that.

    Yes, you are right! And know­ing this, I can’t give up hope in David and Goliath prin­ci­ples! (grins) And that’s to be tak­en as a pure­ly spir­i­tu­al rather then reli­gious statement! : ) 

    Oth­er­wise, along with a lit­tle help from our friends (each oth­er) I’ve also had some David Whyte to fall back on and inspire me when my voice feels too small. 

    There’s a chap­ter on using our voice in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poet­ry and Preser­va­tion of the Soul in Cor­po­rate America. 

    He refers to our tiny mouse voic­es.. the neces­si­ty before our courage is found to be able to ‘roar like a lion with­out killing any­one’! haha I’ve always loved his anal­o­gy because that has been a great deal of my strug­gle since I FOUND my voice! Instead of being qui­et and pas­sive, I now know how to roar like a lion when I feel I need to! 

    How­ev­er, roar­ing alone does­n’t help. It has to be tem­pered enough to be able to do it with­out ‘killing’ peo­ple and that’s where I“m still learn­ing on my own jour­ney right now. 

    Thank you encour­ag­ing more live­ly dis­cus­sion on this top­ic Louise! (and for Dan in advance since he gen­er­al­ly has some awe­some tid­bit to share ) 

    x

  • Mylor~

    Well yes, and that calls for the Oth­er to reduce us, as well. If we keep this up we’ll both be noth­ing more than sand grains (but you’ll still be smaller).

    Thanks for stop­ping by, my friend!

    ~Dan

  • My dear Saman­tha and Louise!

    I hap­pened to be in a meet­ing while your com­ments came in and was eager to join the con­ver­sa­tion — but could not! Thank you both for this love­ly exchange. I do think there is a grow­ing com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who in what­ev­er ways pos­si­ble ways con­tribute to that “com­mit­ment … to keep rais­ing up human­i­ty,” to use your elo­quent phrase, Louise. Human­i­ty raised up with­in us and with­out, and I would add, nature raised up with­in and with­out, as well.

    This is a con­nec­tion, per­haps framed along the routes of some intrin­sic psy­chic force (I would­n’t be sur­prised). All I know is that it is an expres­sion of what is beyond us that must be cher­ished as it flows into the world. 

    It’s an hon­or to find a place for such a con­ver­sa­tion and I’m glad I’m in the club with both of you.

    All the best!
    ~Dan

  • Dan,

    Where we choose to invest our ener­gies. In these few writ­ten words, the weight of our choic­es are clear­ly set. It the pie chart of our ener­gies is defined by how we want to live and what we want to do, we can then begin to decide where to invest. Yes, some mon­ey is need­ed to live and pro­vide. Yes, there are many dis­trac­tions so we need to decide where to invest and what to ignore. And so we begin to slice our pie chart of where we want to invest our energies.

    This may be a worth­while way to live and lead. If some slices of where we invest become so thin, we may (and should) ques­tion their rel­e­vance. If some are so thin yet have the biggest impact, we may need to adjust in oth­er ways.

    We can be judged quick­ly and unfair­ly. How we rise above this may be based on where we choose to spend our ener­gies. If we do this, the judg­ing by oth­ers may be less relevant.

    Thank you for anoth­er thought-pro­vok­ing article.

    Jon

  • Dear Jon~

    Thank you, as always, for your thought­ful com­ments. Choice is indeed core to the issues I am dis­cussing in this post. It’s when things are out of con­scious­ness, tak­en for grant­ed, seem­ing­ly uncho­sen that stop­ping to reflect becomes a quite valu­able per­son­al invest­ment. My arti­cle is about giv­ing too much ener­gy to a cri­tique of oth­ers and what that may point to. 

    I believe that lead­ing judg­men­tal­ly is often a symp­tom of the leader with­draw­ing from aware­ness because tasks have become the be all and end all, the shoulds that reign rather than the per­son who is to car­ry out the work of lead­ing. This is true not just of oth­ers’ judg­ments of us but also of the shoulds with­in and self-judg­ments that we place on our­selves, regard­less of oth­ers’ opin­ions. When we let the shoulds over­whelm us, no mat­ter their source, it’s easy to turn to blame and crit­i­cism of oth­ers as a salve for our own woundedness. 

    I love your notion that when a per­son more con­scious­ly invests, oth­ers’ judg­ments cease to have such pow­er. And that would be pre­cise­ly because we’ve con­struc­tive­ly faced the pos­si­ble self-judg­ments that most pow­er­ful­ly keep us on the run.

    Thank you, Jon!

  • Jon,
    The “no choice” claim is scary but true. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I come across more and more folks who seem trapped by their own fear. They chose to lim­it their poten­tial in an effort to gain a false sense of security.

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