Judging Judgment



There’s an old saying: we judge others by their actions, we judge ourselves by our intentions. For example, we might assume an employee who’s late for work is lazy or unreliable, without considering that there might be a valid, unavoidable reason for their tardiness. Such “attribution errors” are among the most common causes of conflict on teams. Listen and learn to identify and avoid unfair judgments.



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*Note: The following text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors



Bill Berthel: Welcome to the Get Emergent podcast, where we discuss leadership team and organizational topics and better practices. We like to provide concepts and ideas that you can turn into pragmatic experiments to help you develop your higher potential in your work and in your leadership. I’m Bill Berthel.

Ralph Simone: And I’m Ralph Simone. And I’m almost coming out of my chair over the title of today’s podcast because I’m judging why you have me on as a guest.

Bill Berthel: Stop.

Ralph Simone: So, the title. You got to tell people the title. Bill, what’s the title of today’s podcast?

Bill Berthel: Well, Judging  Judgment.

Ralph Simone: Oh, beautiful. Beautiful. So, it’s my wheelhouse. Making judgments, Right. Wrong. Good. Bad.

Ralph Simone: Let’s go. What are we even talking about here?

Bill Berthel: I knew you’d be able to contribute  to today’s conversation

Ralph Simone: Maybe more so than you would like.

Bill Berthel: Never.

Bill Berthel: Never. No.

In social psychology, it’s known as the fundamental attribution error

Bill Berthel: Come on. Really want to talk about this concept that. Honestly, Ralph, I think we’re all attuned to. unless you’re a saint, I think we’re all doing this. In social psychology, it’s known as the fundamental attribution error. Let me give you an example. Instead of the fancy title.

Ralph Simone: That sounds fancy, though, I kind of like that.

Bill Berthel: It’s rooted in our bias. It’s an attribution effect.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: Examples help me.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: An example of this fundamental attribution error would be, attributing a coworker’s lateness. They’re tardy for work. To the fact that they’re unreliable rather than they got stuck in traffic.

Ralph Simone: Unreliable. Flaky.

Bill Berthel: Yeah, whatever, right.

Ralph Simone: I get this. Right. Okay.

Bill Berthel: The adjectives are coming out.

Bill Berthel: Right?

Bill Berthel: So, in turn, one, would give themselves grace if they were late.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: Because we’d know what happened, perhaps.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: What’s the old saying? We judge others by their actions. We judge ourselves by our intentions. That’s really the heart of this attribution error space.

Ralph Simone: So the attribution error becomes an ungrounded assessment. We’re actually drawing a conclusion without all of the information.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely. And particularly in the social psychology place, which this is really important for leaders to think about because we are leading people. It’s typically a judgment about that person’s character or personality is where we make the attribution error.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: So the example of that person was late. They’re unreliable. All of a sudden, we’re assigning this quality or this judgment to their personality or trait of them. That most likely, most cases, is actually an error.

Ralph Simone: Got it.

Ralph Simone: But that then becomes their identity or reputation. Potentially.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Bill Berthel: Sometimes, just in that moment, I do this in traffic. Often I do. Someone cuts me off. It’s like that person’s a jerk, or they’re thoughtless, or they’re dangerous.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: If I did the same thing, I had the space to make that move, and I’m in a hurry.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: I know what I’m doing. The other guy doesn’t.

Bill Berthel: Right. Yeah. Ah.

Ralph Simone: My wife tried to suggest to me that the person might be having a medical emergency. I was like, oh, my God, really? So I wasn’t.

Bill Berthel: What I love about that example is that’s kind of a positive attribution error. We don’t know.

Ralph Simone: I think it was intended to help me shift my energy from what I was really thinking about. Neither one of us knew. Right.

Bill Berthel: You don’t. Probably.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Ralph Simone: So let me ask you this question. Why do we go there so quickly? Or why do leaders, why would a leader, upon somebody being late, immediately go to the person as lazy or irresponsible or not rigorous or any number of labels I could think of in a short period of time? Why would we go there?

Bill Berthel: Because it reinforces our bias that we’re correct.

Ralph Simone: And why is that important?

Bill Berthel: Most of us want to be right, and it’s also a shortcut. It’s a lower expenditure of energy than finding out what may have really happened. And sometimes we don’t have that opportunity.

Ralph Simone: Got, it.

Bill Berthel: But oftentimes, if we’re going to keep this in the context of our workplace, we do have the opportunity. We’re not making it or taking it.

Bill Berthel: Right?

Bill Berthel: So it’s less energy, it’s easier. I’m going to put the quotes around easier, and it makes us right because it’s hard to disprove.

Ralph Simone: So I’m wondering, culturally, what are the implications of this type of behavior over a period in time?

Bill Berthel: Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, suggests it’s one of the fundamental causes of conflict in our teams, whether that’s active conflict or fuels conflict, because we are reinforcing typically negative thoughts about one another. I, love the attribution error that your wife makes because it’s more gracious, but most of us are making them in a more negative, impactful way where there’s something wrong with the character of that person. Then when it comes down to a real conflict, we need to be able to talk about something we disagree about or something’s not working in our work. Well, if I’ve been telling myself all this while that you’re less than, the cultural ramifications are that we’re going to not work in conflict very well together. Matter of fact, I’m probably going to either avoid you, or when we do come together, it’s not going to be overly effective.

Ralph Simone: So this then begins to get at some good feedback guidelines. We need to separate the behavior from the person or the person’s identity, and they need to do the same. Right.

Ralph Simone: Because you could also take on a negative self-talk by identifying with some behavior that was less than optimal for you,

Bill Berthel: I think. Absolutely.

Let’s keep talking about the workplace.

Bill Berthel: I’ve noticed a, fairly significant topic where attribution error is at play. And it’s still a sensitive topic. And I’m saying still because what really surfaced, it was the pandemic. But working remotely, so many organizations we work with, despite productivity metrics, increasing engagement, not being harmed in any way, any measurable way, people wanting to work remotely. Some organizations are holding on to inaccurate observations of remote workers demanding they be in the workplace at least part of the time.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: That’s an attribution error because in talking with some of these leaders, they’re thinking that those remote workers aren’t trustworthy, or they might be goofing off just because they’re out of sight.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: Not in the office, despite the positive metrics in their business.

Ralph Simone: Can we take that from a different angle?

Bill Berthel: Yeah, do it.

Ralph Simone: so I probably have this bias, this attribution error, that I think that it is more effective if we have a place to convene, that we convene there. What What Steve Jobs used to refer to is the accidental collisions that occur because I’m physically there. So I do see the benefit of that. And I do think the accidental collisions help with relationship building. I think it helps performance. I think it helps engagement.

Bill Berthel: I think it absolutely can. I think when we are presented with data that shows the business hasn’t suffered at all, it’s actually improving and growing. The demand for people coming back out of the attribution error of they’re not trustworthy, they’re goofing off, is different than, I have a valid reason for folks coming together. I want some accidental collisions. I want social connectivity because I can provide value.

Ralph Simone: Comes back to context.

Bill Berthel: It comes back to context.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Ralph Simone: In why we want you here or why working on this particular task remotely is okay. Right? Yeah. So I think we’re lazy then. How about that for a judgment?

Bill Berthel: I think we are. I think we’re taking the easy way out sometimes.

Bill Berthel: Yeah.

Ralph Simone: And so we really need to dig a little bit and not just generalize. I was reminded of one feedback guideline on a course that I did. It was standard behavior impact. We need to work harder to ground these assessments or these judgments that we’re making. Why do we have this standard? What’s the behavior? What’s the impact? And if the impact of people working remotely is driving engagement, why would we insist, unless there was a good reason that people would need?

Bill Berthel: Yeah, absolutely. There might be a good reason and there might be an experiment you want to run. Absolutely. But when we’re grounding our assessment on this attribution error, we’re on shaky ground.

Ralph Simone: And I think we use this a lot in coaching. I think, if we would slow down to go faster, in other words, let’s be more discerning and less judging.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Ralph Simone: Let’s ask and listen. Let’s kind of understand. Let’s explain our why in coaching, when people start to identify with limiting behavior, we’ll ask them, well, what else could it mean? What we’re trying to do is mitigate the attribution error.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Ralph Simone: Trying to open up the mindset to possibilities.

Bill Berthel: That’s right.

Ralph Simone: So that we can get positive results and positive action. So we need to do the same thing for ourselves.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Ralph Simone: We need to be less quick to attribute and more curious to find out how this is working or not working, but ground it with data.

Bill Berthel: Absolutely.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: So we can ask ourselves, how do I know this to be true?

Ralph Simone: Yeah.

Bill Berthel: How do I know this to be true? And then we can look for that data that we can ground that assumption or that bias in. Sometimes we find that we’re just wanting to hold on to something that we’re familiar with.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: Because it’s been the way we’ve done it, or it’s something we’re comfortable with. Sometimes we find out that we’re really low in our own energy.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: When we’re not at our best, we’re not going to provide the best observations or best judgments either. We’ll be a little less accurate with those.

Ralph Simone: Got it. So it could actually be a projection on our part

Bill Berthel: And we all do it, right? We all do this to some level, start watching where this might be happening again. For me, it’s in traffic. There’s something about, I don’t know, I guess, being inside of an isolated machine, I’m not face to face with those people, and that part of my character comes out. I don’t know what that is, but see where is happening for you.

Ralph Simone: I probably shouldn’t say this out, loud, but I think it happens for me everywhere I go to a quick judgment about a situation. And I think I could benefit from slowing down a little bit because I obviously don’t have complete information, on most things.

Bill Berthel: So I think here’s one of the most important value points about trust in our relationships is that we will make these kinds of errors with one another. But when we have highly valued, high trusting relationships, we can surface these and have those conversations. I think many times these attribution errors are contributing to our missing conversations because we’re not talking about them. We’re not saying, hey, I noticed you were late three times this week coming to work. Is everything okay? Instead, I’m holding on to, You’re unreliable or whatever the example is.

Bill Berthel: Right. Yeah.

Ralph Simone: Well, we might talk ourselves out of having the conversation.

Bill Berthel: Yes.

Ralph Simone: Because our incomplete judgment has told us it won’t make any difference.

Bill Berthel: Exactly.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: We are rooted in or anchored in that incomplete judgment.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: So a missing conversation has an effect.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: On our relationship, on our work. and so, especially as a leader, we need to be able to slow down, ask, how do I know this to be true and facilitate those missing conversations.

Bill Berthel: Got it.

Ralph Simone: Well, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy the limitation or the positive. And I think that that’s critical to have these conversations and to really kind of surface what’s actually going on versus what we believe to be going on.

Bill Berthel: Exactly.

Ralph Simone: So what. Anything else on this? I mean, this was fascinating. It got me thinking about the difference between judging and discerning. So I think judging is more a knee-jerk reaction that’s often ungrounded, where discerning, we’re actually getting some evidence or some data to support the situation.

Bill Berthel: That’s exactly it. And I like the idea of taking the role of judging our judgment.

Bill Berthel: Right.

Bill Berthel: So it’s that meta judgment of, again, how do I know this to be true? What data do I have to support my decision? I’m using the decision as judgment here. Play that role yourself.

Bill Berthel: Sure. Right.

Bill Berthel: You’ll get a deeper view of how you’re making these conclusions, whether they’re accurate. Or not,

Ralph Simone: And then ask yourself, how is that thought serving you? Because if it’s preventing you from having a conversation with the person, if it’s preventing you from sharing information or reaching out in a compassionate way to help or guide, it’s getting in the way of performance at some level, probably

Bill Berthel: It is. And I mentioned this not just to normalize it, but the fact that we all do this gives me the permission to give other people some grace and give myself some grace around this. So not just to keep allowing it, not to normalize it, but to know that this is a fundamental part of our human condition and that we all have a little bit of work to do in this space. So give others grace when they do it, but don’t let that continue. Have the missing conversation for yourself. Recognize you do it. Don’t beat yourself up. Recognize that we do this. Ask yourself, how do I know it to be true? Ground it in data and then have the conversation.

Ralph Simone: I love that, Bill. It reminds me of at best, our assumptions are incomplete. At worst, they’re incorrect. And, on the essential relationships and the essential things, do a little more work to learn more about the situation so you can make an informed decision.

Bill Berthel: Nice, Ralph. Thank you.

Ralph Simone: Thanks, Bill.

Bill Berthel: And folks, thanks for listening. You can listen to a new podcast two times every month here at Get Emergent or wherever you listen to your podcasts. This is where we bring you contemporary leadership topics and ideas balanced with what we hope you find are better practices that you can apply directly to your work and your leadership.

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