Don’t Judge Me

“Stop judging.”

What parent hasn’t heard this line from their kid?  Every time it comes up, I chuckle a little to myself.  Do kids really expect parents not to judge?  Rendering judgements on the behaviors and choices of our children is an inescapable part of parenting.  So, yes (or as I’m more likely to say “tough shit”), expect me to share my judgements.

Still, it’s hard to blame our kids for feeling this way.  The call to “stop judging” permeates our culture.  Whether its sports, education, or our places of work, “nonjudgementalism” has become our guiding ethic.  It seems that we have decided that any form of judgement is anathema to the building of a truly tolerant and inclusive culture.

These are dangerous waters to wade, especially for someone who has unquestionably benefited from the ways society’s cultural judgments have tilted favorably throughout history in the direction of people like me.  But I believe we must be able to have open conversations on this topic if we are to make progress.

Every company says it because it’s true – people are the most important assets.  Great products and brands begin and end with great people.  What also has been and always will be true is that to be human is to judge.  All of us do it.  It’s in our nature.  Asking someone to stop judging is like asking them to stop breathing.  The only way either stop is when we are dead.

So, if you’re a young person looking to avoid judgement in a professional setting your option is to work alone.  But even in that case it will be impossible to avoid given that your business will have some level of accountability to customers or partners, who will judge you because, well, because they’re people too.

Corporate cultures, from the boardroom to the smallest department, are built around collective judgment.  They are the sum total of behaviors, attitudes, and expectations that the people inside the culture have collectively decided are acceptable.  It is impossible to arrive at an accepted set of norms without considering options, either consciously or unconsciously, and making judgments.  Likewise, it is impossible to maintain a culture without holding individuals accountable when their behavior or choices conflict with the expectations set by the culture.

Now, no right-minded person would question the need, and urgency, to make our corporate cultures more tolerant, inclusive, and just.  For too long the norms and expectations in professional settings have skewed against women and minorities.  Judgements in these settings have been, and in many places continue to be, deeply flawed.

But the answer is not to ask people in leadership, or at any level for that matter, to suspend judgment.  Until we start reporting to robots, that will be impossible.  Nor is it reasonable, at least in my view, to expect that the only people who can fairly judge us are those who look like us.  A culture that only tolerates judgements under such circumstances will in short order become even more tribal, distrustful, and intolerant.

The answer, and it’s not new, is education.  At its core, education has always been about exposing people to ideas, insights, people, and knowledge that will allow them to make informed, enlightened judgements.  Education and training don’t stop with a degree, they need to be lifelong pursuits.  This is why, and I realize I’m drifting here from our focus, the expanding “nonjudgementalism” ethos on our college campuses is so concerning.  The very purpose of higher education is to be exposed to various ideas, people, and philosophies, including those that make us uncomfortable, or we may not like, so we can develop the capacity to make more reasoned, virtuous, and just judgements.

Increasingly higher education is about career preparation.  It’s hard to get hired out of college in my industry without a relevant professional degree.  I joke with young people that I’ve been a CMO at three companies and never took a business or marketing course in college. I majored in history and political science.

My days in college were in a much different time and I am in no way implying my judgement is perfect.  Far from it.  Nor would I advise any young person, including my own kids, to not take advantage of business courses.  However, I do see a correlation between the decline in liberal arts and our misguided notions about judgment.  At its best liberal arts provides a young person with the intellectual, moral, and ethical foundation to make considered judgments.  No personal life experiences are the same, but through education we can develop empathy, curiosity, mercy, and humility – all of which a person must have to equitably judge the actions of another.

We have learned a great deal during the past 18 months about how much remains to be learned, and done, to better understand the experiences of people of color and women in our workplaces.  That process must continue.  The most inclusive, tolerant, successful corporate cultures will be those that find ways to establish on-going training and education to better support employee development in this area.

This is only one of several ideas that smart HR and corporate leaders are implementing.  My point here is not to provide a comprehensive set of solutions, but to encourage leaders and employees not to expect the impossible.  There is no such thing as a “no judgement zone.”  Our opportunity as leaders and employees is not to eliminate judgement, rather it is to ensure that everyone in the culture has access to the necessary training, education, and experience so that the judgements we make are more tolerant, inclusive, and just for all.

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