A paradox is something that is seemingly absurd or contradictory. In the complex and global world where we live and work, we are expected to be remain non-judgmental in our interactions. But it seems paradoxical to expect our human brain to not judge people and situations.
Evolution has programmed our brains to judge because it helps keep us safe. We are constantly assessing the risk of being overpowered by someone, physically, cognitively and emotionally. How can we deny the importance of being safe? How can we let go of our powerful ally– the judgmental brain? Malcolm Gladwell would even argue that the decisions made in a “blink” are in fact just as good or even better than those that are carefully planned.
Evolution has programmed our brains to judge because it helps keep us safe. We are constantly assessing the risk of being overpowered by someone, physically, cognitively and emotionally.
Typically speaking, we do not like to be told not to judge– and for good reason.
Apart from an occasional pang of possible guilt or shame, we feel self-righteous in our judgments. There are two specific reasons for that. First, neuroscience research shows that we have two types of brain activities: reflexive and rational. The reflexive brain kicks in first by activating our amygdala as soon as we encounter a person or an event. This is the part of the brain where fear and anxiety are processed, and we are not conscious of this.
The rational brain will then either justify the snap judgment or refute it. But this refutation by the rational brain takes a lot of hard work. If your community has had a history of persecution from another community, it will take immense cognitive effort to look at a person from that community and not to feel discomfort.
Second, we confuse “using good judgment” with “being judgmental”. The distinction between these two is not always so clear. When someone tells us not to be judgmental, we think about the times when our good judgment made things work for us.
In one situation, for example, I observed a boss betraying the trust of many of his close friendships. I was one of the very few people who survived in the organisation. I attribute my survival to my not trusting him completely and keeping a friendly distance. My subliminal prejudices from my upbringing in India probably made me acutely aware of the reputation of his community as being smooth-talking yet deceptive. Had I practiced non-judgment and treated him with open arms, I could have been burnt and bitter.
But I also know about several situations when people faced unfair judgments. Women friends in powerful positions told me about being spoken to as if they were assistants. Sometimes, their suggestions were sidelined.
As Indians, our brains are programmed to notice in a flash people’s appearance, accent, personality, dressing style and the state they come from. Are they convent-educated or from a vernacular school? What sub-community and caste do they belong to, based on their last name? This gives us the information to make inferences on whether they are smart or simply well connected, fun-loving or serious, honest or manipulative, religious or reformist and many such characteristics. This tells us whether to treat them with respect or contempt, whether to expect competence from them or to treat their abilities with suspicion. If their sexual orientation seems to stray from the norm, we might feel free to treat them with ridicule or show our discomfort. Sometimes, such expressions of our judgments may not be explicit or dramatic, like in a Bollywood movie, but implicit, subtle, confusing and disorienting for the object of our judgments.
Our brains are programmed to notice in a flash people’s appearance, accent, personality, dressing style and the state they come from.
To judge or not to judge?
First, let us fully accept the nature of contemporary workplaces. In describing today’s changing workplaces, words thrown around frequently include: global, teamwork, collaboration, and safe. When you are working in a team, with people from all walks of life, communities, genders, sexual orientations, personalities, values, religions or countries, the way for the team to flourish is to feel safe in collaboration. Key to a good team are good relationships. And good relationships need a sense of safety and a sense of being valued. Judgmental communication puts people on edge and stops them from performing at their best.
Once we understand judgments in the workplace as a relationship issue, things become much simpler. Not judging is in your own best interest if you want to have good working relationships in your team. The same applies if as a manager if you want to motivate your employees to give their best. But understanding that collaborative relationships are essential for teamwork does not necessarily make it possible to ignore our instinctive tendency to judge.
Not judging is in your own best interest if you want to have good working relationships in your team.
This takes us to the second point, subtle and very important. We carry a misconception that being non-judgmental means not making any judgments. Does non-judgement require training ourselves to accept everybody and to not to think negatively about them? Not so!
Dan Siegel, a neuropsychologist at University of California at Los Angeles, beautifully explained the notion of non-judgment that came from his conversations with the Dalai Lama. Non-judgment is not about wiping away all judgments, but about letting them come, noticing them, and not taking them too seriously. Do not treat judgments as facts. Do not get tangled in your own righteousness. Most of all, don’t act upon them with negative intent – explicit or implicit.
Do not treat judgments as facts.
Instead, what if you choose to open yourself up to curiosity? What if you decide to find out and appreciate the strengths of the person? You will be amazed to discover a whole new world of amazing stories. You will be able to connect with people in a way that allows mutual flourishing. This does not necessarily mean making best friends with the person if you don’t feel safe with them. It means creating a good working relationship.
The key to resolving the non-judgment paradox at work is to place naturally arising judgments on a shelf and allow your curious mind to get to know the person in your own way. Try it next time when a judgment pops in your head and see if it changes your experience.