As a professional in diversity, inclusiveness and leadership, I often hear clients talk about “not judging” as a positive goal. I especially notice white people going out of their way to “not judge” others and to be perceived as nonjudgmental.
As is sometimes the case with good people starting out on their personal diversity journey, this can be a well-meaning intention with negative effects. Not wanting to seem judgmental, good people may tolerate inappropriate behavior or low performance from colleagues or direct reports of color, hold back on mentoring or giving vital feedback to women, or shy away from chatting with LGBT co-workers about their interests and families.
This is a mistake for two reasons. One, it’s not the conversations that hold us back, but the not having conversations that keeps us stuck and stunted when it comes to diversity, inclusiveness and race relations.
Two, for human beings, not judging is impossible. We have arguably the most sophisticated brains on the planet, and one of its chief functions — that’s helped us survive for 150,000 years — is to gather data, identify patterns and quickly make decisions, also known as judging, based on those patterns. We now know that this process, ruled largely by our ancient “downstairs brain” outside of our conscious awareness, is the source of unconscious bias and other nasty automatic habits that get in the way of us being our best selves in a complex civilization filled with vastly diverse humans.
But the solution is not to “not judge”, or pretend we don’t. Evaluating data and making decisions continues to serve us as individuals and a species. Our judgments also make us the precious individuals we are, adding to our collective strength through our diversity. For example, I like intense physical exercise, black licorice, hip hop music and people who enjoy silly humor and the outdoors. I don’t like board games, cold weather, or people who drive slowly or are disorganized. None of these preferences (judgments) are wrong or bad.
The problem isn’t judging, it’s judging too quickly with limited or inaccurate data. If I decide I don’t like black licorice without trying it, or intense physical exercise after one Crossfit class, I may not be making a fair assessment. If I have a challenging relationship with my boss, it may not be true that I have issues with authority, or female bosses in general. I may, but until I’ve had more experiences with other bosses and other female bosses, I can’t be sure. Also, if I conclude that my Hispanic teammate hasn’t been responding to my important emails because I learned in a workshop that “Hispanics have a more fluid sense of time”, I won’t try to find out why he hasn’t been responding and just “let it go” (AKA say nothing and resent him). If, in fact, he was out of the office for two weeks with no notifier on his email, I’ve not only missed an opportunity to create a more positive relationship with him and better teamwork in general, I’ve reinforced a stereotype in my mind that will impact my future decisions.
The other problem is allowing our judgments to interfere with our decisions in an ineffective way. Because I have a negative bias towards disorganization and slowness, I keep an eye on how I view my colleagues and interpret their behavior through this biased lens. I may quickly decide that someone who’s slower and less organized than me is incompetent, when in actuality they’re highly competent with a different work style. In that case, my judgment is ineffective because it will prevent our collaboration from being enhanced by their different (perhaps better) way of getting results or building relationships. However, if they’re a potential partner on a high stakes project with lots of details and a tight timeline, my judgment that they may not have the necessary competencies is likely an effective one.
Making mindful decisions based on a decent amount of accurate data is a more effective goal than “not judging”. Celebrating our individual preferences (biases) and paying mind to how they may interfere with our effectiveness is a critical step towards that goal. Another step is shifting our focus and language towards discernment and away from “judgment”. There’s a big difference between saying “I don’t like hip hop music” (discernment) and “hip hop music is bad” (judgment). The former is a true statement that leaves room for other possibilities; the latter leaves no such room, and passes off personal preference as indisputable reality or moral absolute. After all, one of the most delightful – yet challenging – aspects of “diversity” is we all get to practice more discernment, since there’s so much more to experience and choose…or not!