How to listen without judging — a guide for managers

Edited excerpt from Practicing Non-Judgment by Leo Babauta:

What I’ve noticed when I experience anger, frustration, and disappointment, is that I am judging my experiences (and others, and myself) based on whether they are what I want, whether they are good for me or not. But why am I at the center of the universe? What about the other person? What about the rest of the universe?

If I drop away my self-centeredness, I no longer have reason for frustration. The experiences are just happening, and have nothing to do with me. They are neither good nor bad, they’re just happening.

Now, I realize we can’t do this all the time — as humans, it’s part of our experience to judge. And that’s OK. I’m simply suggesting that, some of the time, we drop the judgment and just experience.

(1) For managers, there are positives and negatives to being judgmental. The positives: You have to be judgmental if you want to set high standards and create a culture committed to excellence. The negatives: Put yourself in your team’s shoes — it’s debilitating to feel constantly judged and criticized.
(2) How do you get the balance right? This is a personal issue I grapple with. I’m extremely judgmental, and I think I often get the balance wrong. Suggestions, anyone?
(3) See (i) The 5 psychological traits of successful startup founders, (ii) Which is better: a CEO who tolerates mediocrity or one who throws tantrums? (that post caused a furore inside Seeking Alpha), and (iii) How the “too nice” manager kills your career.

4 thoughts on “How to listen without judging — a guide for managers

  1. Here’s a response I got from a reader who wanted to stay anonymous; I thought it was outstanding:

    I *love* managing a team and I enjoy learning about management techniques, but I didn’t want to leave a public reply on your post because I didn’t want to come across to my colleagues as if I’ve got it all figured out when that’s certainly not the case.

    I’ve thought about your #2 comment a lot over the years, because I want to be surrounded by exceptionalism and most people disappoint. In a personal life setting this is somewhat easier because I can (mostly) choose who to spend my time with. In a professional setting, we don’t get to choose our colleagues or our inherited direct reports, and even for the people we hire directly, there are often(/usually) disappointments. So on a professional level I take three approaches to this:

    1) Judge the outcome, not the person. If someone delivers a sub-standard result, then I try to see it as a function of the strategy being wrong or the execution being wrong, but not the person being bad at it. And if the person delivers multiple sub-standard results in a row and it’s clear the person doesn’t belong on my team, I’ll fire them if I really have to but I’ll try to frame it as “This person can’t deliver the outcome I need” and not “This person is bad at XYZ.” It’s the difference between “This person can’t build me the checkout page I need” vs. “This person doesn’t understand good UI” – I’m judging the end result, not any innate qualities in the team member.

    (It works in reverse too. Someone who has bad work habits and is inefficient but who consistently delivers excellent results should be evaluated only on the outcome, not on the personal work habits).

    2) I view it as a management/mentorship challenge for myself. If I was teaching a class and a child was struggling at math, I wouldn’t judge the child as being bad at math. I would work with him (or get him outside help) to try to bring him up to the competency level I expect him to have. That’s how I view my team, and really anyone I work with. If one of my direct reports is under-delivering, then I view it very much as a “we” issue, not a “him” issue – what can I be doing to help get him the resources/guidance/skills/other that he needs?
    When someone on my team misses their metric, I generally see that as my own management failure, because I should be working with that person to help them achieve what they need to, up until the point where I see improvement is not possible and then it’s time to let that person go or find a more suitable role for them.
    By framing their under-delivery as at least partly my own failing (“I need to be a more supportive manager,” “I need to be clearer about my expectations,” “I need to get them some outside training on this topic,” etc.), I become a better manager and a better enabler for their success, and it creates an environment where the person feels I’m working constructively with them to get a better result next time vs. the person feeling they’re standing by themselves in a pool of their own shortcomings.

    2b) Part of the mentorship challenge is figuring out what motivates the person. Some people respond well to a harsh critique – it shakes them up and gets them focused on really improving. For me, as a worker, earned praise is a really awesome psychic reward. If I bring my manager an idea and he loves it, I feel good. If I bring my manager an idea and he’s non-committal, then I feel like I’ve under-delivered and I keep trying harder. There’s really no point at which my manager ever says to me I’ve done something badly and he doesn’t need to – trying to get that earned praise is all the motivation I need.
    In my experience, most of the people I’ve managed have fallen into the category of “earned praise” motivation, and far fewer have fallen into the “blunt critique” category – but a few have. And the challenge to me is to figure out which person needs to hear which kind of feedback. It doesn’t matter that I want to be blunt with everyone (because that’s my personal style). It’s about finding the approach that is going to let me leverage the best result out of each direct report. So I try to be blunt with the ones that need to hear that kind of explicit feedback, and I try to use praise as a motivator for the ones that thrive under that method.

    3) Lastly, I would guess that I feel judgmental around as frequently as you do, but I hide it a little better :^) (No offense meant!)
    I learned with my kids that I don’t have to actually feel patient as long as I come across as patient. I’m not sure you (or I, or anyone) can ever really stop being judgmental, but we can temper how we express it, even just a little, to make it more palatable to other people.

    I don’t know if any of this resonates for you and I certainly do not have it all figured out, but it is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about for myself, so I wanted to share.

  2. Pingback: Customer development is about listening, not pitching | A Founder's Notebook

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  4. Pingback: How to listen when you disagree | A Founder's Notebook

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