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Before you judge, do you know the backstory?

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Leaders pride themselves on their ability to quickly judge a situation, assess the likely impact and then make a decision. Yet how often do these decisions fall short due to not fully understanding the circumstance? Most important decisions we make are those relating to people. We need to accurately assess and understand the mindset of each individual we are electing to place our trust in.

When we refer to people we work with as having good judgement, it is a compliment and refers to their ability to exercise the act according to dictionary definition, ‘the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions’. We accept that this good judgement at work will almost always have included an assessment of the human element of the equation. People are the most important part of any project, exercise or creation. Therefore, it is essential that their skills and attitude to the task be assessed beforehand. To be judged. Unfortunately, we rarely pass judgement on an individual based on all the facts. We want to make decisions quickly, to be efficient and keep things moving forward at a pace.

As a result of this, we are often drawn to extreme positives or negatives that are observed only briefly when we happened to be present. These are good or bad traits, habits, skills or behaviours that are easy to classify. We believe we can immediately place a clear judgement on the situation because it was obvious. This is known as the ‘horns/halo effect’, where our desire for speed and clarity overcomes our core belief in fully assessing the situation. We see good and want to praise it. We see bad and want to criticise it. The mind sees this opportunity as a shortcut to accurate judgement and requires sometimes only one repeated event for the judgement to now be seared in the mind of the observer.

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How many times have you as a manager been frustrated by the fact that your best performer decides to behave inappropriately, or be distracted by irrelevance, just as a member of the senior leadership team appears in the room? You know it is going to require some constant undoing as the ‘snapshot’ of your best performer is what the leader will take away as the consistent character, rather than the other 8 hours a day. You know your team member works hard, supports others and epitomises the desired character for the business, yet unpicking this brief encounter will be your job for the foreseeable future.

We all have a responsibility to take the time necessary to fully understand the context of all our relationships, at home and at work. Yet the desire to be quick, or right, or knowledgeable, circumvents the process. We judge too quickly.

I spent many years guilty of the ‘shortcut mindset’, that convinces us we can make faster and better judgements than others based on our intellect and experience. That we know better and we know it faster than anyone else in the room. It took a very intelligent and passionate friend of mine to stop me in my tracks on an occasion where my snap judgement of a person was, in their opinion, wrong. They asked me a very powerful question which I use to this day, as many of those I coach will recognise. ‘What is the backstory?’

In film and fiction, the word is used to describe the unfolding or revelation of information relevant to the plot. It is the things we don’t know on first meeting, the unseen context to the narrative. And as a way of describing the lack of understanding we have of a full character or situation in our everyday life, it is perfect.

The business owners I work with who have teams of under 10 are all very aware of backstories. They have daily interaction with everyone in their business and as a result, gather a detailed picture of their whole team. They make decisions with empathy and rarely misstep based on a lack of context. As the size of the business increases, daily interactions are reduced and there is that moment when an owner sits up and thinks, ‘I don’t really know everyone who works with me’. The same challenge faces anyone moving into a leadership role in a new company. How do I get to know everyone who works with me, so I can always be a fair judge? And yes, the answer is to always be aware of the need to understand and appreciate the backstory. Practicality dictates it cannot always be you who has the time to know everyone in the business and their story. However, your influence and embedding of a culture where this is a ‘leadership habit’, will ensure decisions across the business are made with as much of the available information as possible. As a leader, questioning others when they snap judge a situation or person, is the key to opening minds; to look for all the human information available before making judgement.

Speaking of backstories, there is one other we haven’t discussed yet, and that is yours! Your own backstory is as important as those you are engaging with. Without a full understanding and appreciation of your own context, you are unable to accurately assess incoming information. That back story may be the last hour, a few days, or months of frustration, regarding a personal challenge. It might be that your back story has led you to be disproportionately happy; to be distracted or disengaged; or has in fact led you to have a slanted negative view of a person or situation based on a past experience. All of these factors will have an influence on judgement you make. Acknowledging them and considering their impact on your assessment of the information available is essential when making your decisions. This self-awareness will lead you to appreciating that your own backstory is as important to fully understand as the backstory of those you work or live with.

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Judgement is not only acceptable but necessary. However, what will reassure you that you have made every effort to ensure your judgement is as fair, honest and accurate as it can be, is the understanding of the backstory. Yours and theirs.