Ask first, judge later

Here’s a pattern I’ve observed in myself and others over the years.

  1. People tell you about something.
  2. It doesn’t match your world view or expectations (what you think is right or true)
  3. You judge quickly. Because of the mismatch you reject. If you’re a proper bore you may even layer on a little ridicule.

This is a natural part of being human. It’s one of the many gifts our brain gives us to help us to process information more quickly and easily. It’s great for helping us quickly decide whether that red berry will be delicious or poisonous.

This process works less well for ideas that you’re not expecting. These are often the good kind of ideas, the ones that could potentially bring great innovation and improvement. These ideas don’t always immediately make sense or to match existing world views. They take some getting used to, and they take some questioning to reveal their sense.

Its pretty easy when you’re the boss to feel you have to pass judgement quickly. To feel you should immediately have a sense of whether something is right or wrong, better or worse. This is old school leadership and can be alienating and discouraging to people who may have the next great idea.

So here is my rule of thumb. If someone comes to me with an idea, even if my immediate reaction is very negative, ask at least three questions about that idea to make sure you really understand it and appreciate it (see also the Five Whys technique).

Particularly ask about the things that bother you the most about it. Don’t judge yet.

There is a possibility that either your expectations and biases are stopping you from seeing the potential of the idea, or that it’s not been communicated clearly and in a way that resonates with you. Its your job to dig in and make sure you understand. Not to rush to judgement and potentially sweep away valuable contributions.

Take your time to appreciate and evaluate a concept before you dismiss it – the very least you’ll get is a whole lot more respect from your colleagues.

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