Have you judged anyone yet today? Someone wasn’t dressed right for a meeting, someone else didn’t work long past five o’clock, that person really should do something about his disorganized desk (I’m guilty of the last one).

Where is all this judgment coming from?

A long time ago, when I first started blogging, I wrote about a core set of values that guides each of us to be better leaders, while also warning of false values, like fear or shame, that could trap us. I’ve been revisiting this concept recently as I read a powerful book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. In this book, Ruiz illuminates the “self-limiting beliefs” that hold us back from creating love and happiness in our lives. This book is full of so many huge lessons and principles to live by, but for right now I want to focus on what it says about judgment.

Ruiz writes: “There’s something in our minds that judges everybody and everything, including the weather, the dog, the cat—everything.”

Sound familiar? In this book, Ruiz contends that this “something in our minds” comes from a place of judging ourselves first. And that, he writes, comes out of our cumulative experiences in life. Most of the time, we don’t realize what’s happening. We simply judge.

In life, we walk around saying: “Good Driver/Bad Driver,” “Terrible Cook/Great Cook,” “Strong Manager/Weak Manager.” You get the idea. Living in that space increases the level of internal conflict we feel, and external conflict we share with others around us. Furthermore, that place of thinking is isolating. Why do we measure others and ourselves with such high standards? Even if you don’t think your standard is high, think again. Ask yourself why you’re measuring in the first place.

Here’s how I see this playing out around me, and in my own life. It’s not the whispering, gossiping type of harsh judgment that I’m thinking about (although sure, there’s enough of that to go around). It’s the subtle judgments that often reveal the larger truth about our own hangups.

Work Hours
Coming in early and working late … it’s so cultural. How many people do you know who work 70 hours a week at the office? They may be productivity machines, but I’ve found most often those who work long hours like that still complete the work of a 40-hour-a-week employee. In fact, most studies show the same. One Stanford University study showed that after 50 hours, “work martyrs” have nothing more to show for extra hours worked. Even Japan is rethinking its cultural expectations of long work hours to start boosting productivity. If you have the tendency to measure your value in relation to the midnight oil you burn, take a look at what that says about your agreement with yourself.

For example, did you grow up in a family with a parent who was out the door at seven and back home at seven every day? If so, that means you’re going to struggle to value your contributions based on that model. What about your first job? What was your supervisor like? Did they stick around well past rush hour, and expect you to do the same? Did you learn to normalize weekends at the office spent doing work that could wait until Monday because you were acknowledged for the long hours? If this has been your experience, then it’s quite likely you’ve judged a co-worker for skipping out at 4:45 on a sunny day, despite their actual contribution to the team.

Dress Code
I grew up in a more formal Christian faith tradition, which meant we got dressed up to go to church. I remember to this day feeling restrained by having to wear a tie as a five year old. I also believed that if I did not dress up for church, God didn’t love me (a stretch, not logical, I know). That was a belief that got ingrained in me by my well-intentioned parents and our community of well-heeled church goers. They just wanted me to look my best.

It’s deeply ingrained. So deep, in fact, that I still find myself gravitating to churches where people look nice for service. I’ve even caught myself choosing not to sit next to those who aren’t dressed well. According to Ruiz, this is a false agreement I have with myself that’s causing me to judge those around me. It’s not about my true self.

My foundational idea about God loving those who dress well causes me to extrapolate what it means when people are not dressed up at work. There’s the whole business casual environment. I used to really believe that someone’s effectiveness and seriousness had to do with how they were dressed when they showed up to work. I’m also fairly quick to judge myself when I’m underdressed. See how it spirals?

Worst of all, judgment stifles our relationships.

“There’s No Judgment Here”
When we look at ourselves, often times we see our failures and our under achievements in life and guess what happens? We take that and use it (whether right, wrong, or indifferent) to evaluate the people around us. Some people call that a double standard but it’s far deeper than that.

I actually think of these false agreements as emotional addictions. And I’m in recovery, working hard to let it go. As leaders, we must abandon our tendencies to judge based on impossible standards tied to our own baggage. It’s also our responsibility to question our team members’ behaviors when they are tied up with judgments and false agreements.

For example, I never want to create a culture where my team feels like they need to stick around after I leave just to look productive. I know what they contribute because we have a relationship.  And part of having that relationship is checking in, asking questions—even tough questions. We can question them in a comfortable conversation that allows space to re-examine the reasons behind the behavior. That’s a great start toward keeping judgments, and all the unnecessary conflict that comes with it, at bay. Before you ask, remember to begin those conversations with the simple caveat: “There’s no judgment here,” and mean it.

Here are some additional ways to frame questions that affirm your desire to find out information without coming across as judgmental. These framing statements encourage open-ended questions that help bring more understanding around someone’s behavior or choices. Those kind of questions encourage an open dialog that builds relationships.

  1. How did this come about?
  2. I’ve noticed this. Tell me more about that…
  3. Let’s talk about how you feel…

Don’t forget about asking questions of yourself, either. What are some of the things that you intuitively judge people around? Be aware of this area, and ask yourself the questions that may uncover your false agreements and help you to move past the tendency.

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