Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 4;   January 23, 2019: Judging Others

Judging Others

by

Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often?
Two men whispering at a village festival

Two men whispering at a village festival. Workplace judgment messages are sometimes propagated in whispering sessions. More often propagation occurs in more private settings where whispering is unnecessary.

Like many words in many languages, the word judging in English has multiple meanings. One meaning denotes a potentially problematic pattern of thought that can lead to behaviors that cause real problems at work. To judge others in this sense is to evaluate their worth as people, based on possibly flimsy evidence not subject to review, and then to find those people wanting. This pattern causes trouble because, often, the judgments we make aren't merely inaccurate. They also have a self-fulfilling property that limits the ability of anyone to effectively dispute — or even to question — the validity of the judgment. That is, the act of forming the judgment, and propagating it, prevents anyone from correcting errors in the judgment itself.

Judging isn't always dysfunctional. For example, consider an organizational leader who repeatedly engages in behavior abusive of subordinates, or in corrupt self-dealing, or in misrepresentation of facts for personal advantage. Judging such a person as unfit for any level of organizational responsibility is not only functional, but might also be ethically obligatory.

So judging itself isn't problematic. What is problematic is judging based on insufficient or manufactured evidence, with inadequate mechanisms available for error correction. Even such judgments — call them proto-judgments — can occasionally prove to be accurate. The subset of proto-judgments of interest here are those that would prove to be inaccurate and harmful if subjected to careful review.

In what follows, I use the term propagator to refer to a person who passes the judgment along to others. The form in which the judgment propagates is the message, which could be conveyed in conversation (face-to-face or telephone), or text message or email or (shudder) hardcopy. The person who receives the message is the recipient. The target is the person who's being judged. The originator is the person who originates the judgment. Any given judgment can have any number of originators and propagators.

Let's have a look at how this fascinatingly dysfunctional thought pattern works.

Judgments are often shared
Sharing is the means by which propagators pass their judgments to others. Propagation provides a means of amplifying the effects of the judgments to enable them to influence more people than merely the originator of the judgment.
Recipients Recipients of judgment messages
are rarely able to evaluate
their validity. They pass
them along anyway.
of judgment messages are rarely able to evaluate their validity. Recipients usually rely on the propagator's credibility as a means of assessing message validity. Doing so can be risky. As a recipient of a judgment message, if you can't independently validate the judgment contained in the message, beware.
Sharing usually happens in secret
Covert judgments are much less likely to be disputed or reviewed against disconfirming evidence, because only the propagator(s) and recipient(s) know that the message has been passed along. Secrecy enables the judgments to persist even if inapplicable, and protects them from any form of corrective action. Moreover, secrecy acts as an accelerant, because originators of unsubstantiated or easily falsified judgments are more likely to propagate them if they feel confident that (a) the judgment won't be subject to review and (b) neither originators nor propagators will be required to provide justifying evidence. In this way, secrecy encourages spontaneous judgment origination and speeds propagation.
Receiving in secret — we usually call it "in confidence" — a message of judgment about someone else is an indicator that the message is very unlikely to have been validated.
"Evidence" is frequently attributed to anonymous sources
Another element of the "secrecy envelope" that's so necessary for rapid and accelerating message propagation is anonymity of the sources of supposed facts in evidence that support the judgments. By characterizing the anonymous source as someone credible and authoritative, originators and propagators can harvest much of the good will a named source would provide for the judgment, without exposing the source to the risk of consequences of having provided the evidence itself. Anonymity of sources also enables manufacture of evidence.
If the message cites anonymous sources, beware. Such citations are indicators of untrustworthiness.
Harming the target might be in the interest of the propagators and originator
Messages that convey judgments that do harm to the target are more likely to propagate rapidly and widely, because some propagators have an interest in harming the target. Motivations can range from schadenfreude to competition for promotion, to vengeance for perceived wrongs.
If you receive a judgment message from someone who would benefit from harming the target, be skeptical of its authenticity.
Some judgments are consistent with widely accepted stereotypes
Some judgments are actually little more than encapsulations of stereotypes that match characteristics of the target. For example, if the target belongs to a demographic group, the judgment might correspond to the stereotype of that demographic group. In this way, judgments gain propagation speed and longevity by exploiting a cognitive bias known as confirmation bias. Messages that align with the propagators' preconceptions about the stereotype are more likely to propagate.
Judgments that correspond to stereotypical characteristics of the target can usually be disregarded as wholly without merit. When you detect such messages, pause and reflect on their possible effect on your own conclusions. Propagating such judgments can be ethically questionable.
Some judgments are consistent with widely known information or misinformation
Confirmation bias can play an accelerant role when the judgment involves not stereotypes based on demographics of the target, but instead involves other information or misinformation about the target. For example, if the target happens to be absent from work at the same time as another person with whom the target is wrongly rumored to be having an affair, the simultaneous absences can serve as "evidence" supporting judgments about the target's loose morals.
Judgments based on inferences drawn from coincidences are particularly suspect.

Judgments about others at work are foundational to toxic and destructive workplace politics. We have some control over our own thoughts — sometimes, admittedly, not enough. But we have much better control over our own actions. And one class of actions from which we can refrain is propagating judgments about others. Go to top Top  Next issue: Conway's Law and Technical Debt  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A collared lizardHow to Avoid a Layoff: Your Situation
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for positioning yourself in the organization to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
A blue peacock of IndiaThe Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate.
A shark of unspecified speciesNarcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard.
Jump ball in a game of basketballUnethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external vendor is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What's the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur?
Stones: many, many stones.Stone-Throwers at Meetings: I
One class of disruptions in meetings includes the tactics of stone-throwers — people who exploit low-cost tactics to disrupt the meeting and distract all participants so as to obstruct progress. How do they do it, and what can the meeting chair do?

See also Workplace Politics and Workplace Bullying for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.