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The critical difference: between good judgement & being judgemental

However challenging the work, often the most stressful thing in any job are difficulties in relationships with colleagues. It has certainly been the challenges of managing people that has most kept me awake at night over the last 25 years of my working life.

There are many good tips and techniques that can be learnt to manage people better. But I think the single most important factor is understanding yourself and knowing why you respond and react in the ways you do.

The best people managers can self-evaluate their own work without defensiveness and can help others do the same.

How we judge

In a management training session about 20 years ago I first heard this quote:

‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.’

The truth of this quote (from Stephen Covey) immediately struck me. It was like a light-switch was flicked in my mind. It made me reflect on many times when, despite what I considered really good motives, my actions (or lack of) had angered or upset colleagues.

Most jobs involve constantly making evaluations and judgements.  But there is a critical difference between how we tend to judge ourselves from how we judge others.

The difference

We evaluate ourselves using the knowledge at our disposal and this includes the exclusive access we have to what is going on in our heads. Our intentions, motivations, insecurities, worries, past hurts and difficulties all go into our self-evaluation about how we have acted. 

But these internal thoughts are, at best, only partially known to others. And even when they are known, they may well be understood or interpreted differently. It is our actions and behaviour that count to those around us.


This is because our actions are tangible and have an impact on others. Actions speak louder, clearer and more powerfully than any words. They are the true test of our thoughts and beliefs. A tree is known by the fruit it produces.

In my first few years of managing people, I had to learn that my staff team did not primarily want my good intentions, much as I wanted to share them. They judged me by how I acted, by the decisions I took and how I behaved.

The management task

As well as helping me understand how people viewed me, this quote captures the appropriate priority for the good management of others.  In the work context, it is right to judge people by their behaviour.

The management task is to ensure good performance. Someone wanting to do a good job is not enough: they must have the capability and competence to fulfil the role.  These are the hard calls that are required in management and leadership.

Focus on actions

In dealing with tricky issues, I have found this model, developed by my friend Adrian Lock, founder of consultancy Deeper Leaders, incredibly helpful. I recommend anyone who manages someone to print it off and pin it above their desk.

When addressing poor performance or giving negative feedback, you should focus on how the person’s behaviour and the impact this has had (the outer green circles).

These ‘external’ elements are more verifiable and objective. Being upfront about issues in this zone is to be assertive and appropriate.

Avoid speculation

But managers should avoid getting drawn into speculating on other people’s motives e.g. ‘I just don’t think you care’, or even worse commenting on their identity ‘Basically you’re a lazy person.’ 

In times of stress, it is tempting to get drawn into such areas, but it is both dangerous and ineffective. 

Other people’s motivations always remain at least partially hidden. However intuitive we consider ourselves to be, our interpretation of the inner workings of others are highly prone to being warped by our own insecurities and anxieties.

For more on this model see Telling the truth: the importance of critical conversations.

Being judgemental

The difference between assessing behaviour and speculating on motivations also marks the line between the strength of good judgement and the weakness of being judgemental.

To accurately assess the quality of someone’s behaviour and the impact of their performance is to show good judgement. This is the key task of a leader or manager.

But to speculate negatively on their motivations, or be perceived as criticising their identity, is to become judgemental and possibly bullying.

Having good judgement

Leading and managing people is never easy. It cannot be done well without exercising good judgement about people’s behaviour and its impact. The more assertively we can do this, the better manager we become.

But we must constantly watch the danger of frustration or stress causing us to lapse into judgmentalism about other people’s motivations or identity. This distinction makes the critical difference.

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