PM Articles > Geof Lory > Who Am I To Judge?

Who Am I To Judge?

by Geof Lory

How do you write an article on suspending judgment without sounding like you are judging anyone who doesn't? Sounds like a catch-22, but I'll give it a try if you will read along with a generous mindset.

I have two college age daughters that are as different as night and day. Neither one is particularly like me, unless you ask my wife. She sees us cut from the same cloth. OK, I have to admit they both drive like me—a little aggressively. But, as college students, they do their own thing the way they want to, which many times is not what I would want them to do or how I would do it if I were in their shoes. Fortunately for them and me, I'm not in their shoes. I think this is for the best.

I work on project teams with team members even more diverse than my daughters. Languages and cultures differentiate team members rather than just hair color, personalities and driving habits. The underlying norms and values of my team members are sometimes as foreign to me as the music selection on my daughters' iPods. This diversity can be a challenge.

When I deal with my daughters I pretty much know what to expect. Years of living under the same roof, working and playing with them, has created a reliable map of common understanding. At least it is easy and more comfortable for me to hold onto that perception until I am proven otherwise. History is a strong indicator of the future. (Emphasis on the word indicator, as the girls are quick to remind me.)

However, on projects where the shared history of team members is decades less, or non-existent, we do not have the luxury of so many common experiences. We must rely on a fraction of the data to understand what we can expect from our teammates. As more organizations move to matrix management and virtual teams become the norm, dealing with interpersonal understanding and mutual expectations will challenge the simplest project. On complex projects, it can be deadly.

Part of the challenge with diverse teams—particularly during the early phases of a project when they are going through the forming and storming stages—is our natural tendency to judge others. Most project environments, especially in the beginning, are uncertain enough with poor or changing requirements. In this ambiguity it is comfortable to seek some solace in the certainty of our judgments, especially the judgment of others. Judging others provides the mental illusion of control and clarity and spares us the angst and chaotic morass of the alternative.

But judgment also blocks the possibilities that can come from the creative chaos of the uncertainty. The knowledge of what we believe to be true can interfere with the possibility of what could be true.

Judging isn't just about rigid prejudice; it's just a closed mind to what can be because you are so certain you already know what is. My oldest daughter is an artist. It is her nature to see things other than as they are. As frustrating as that may be at times, I marvel at how she gets through the day without judging.

My father was also artistic. In college I was taking a landscape architecture class that required some level of drawing to pass. I was struggling and asked my dad for help. After an hour of trying, he finally turned to me and said, "You just can't see it, can you?" "See what?" I asked. "The blue and red in the trees," he insisted. To which I replied, "Dad, trees are green and brown, not blue and red." I passed the class with a sympathy grade from the professor—a gracious judgment on his part.

As a consultant, I often work with teams that are not functioning well. I once worked for a project manager who was extremely judgmental. If a person's name was mentioned, she was compelled to comment on that person's character or performance, and usually not in a favorable way. She believed she knew everyone's abilities and worth, and usually her perceptions were not that complimentary, or correct.

One day I asked her just why she felt the need to editorialize negatively on everyone she knew. Her answer surprised me: "I don't editorialize, I just am not afraid to tell the truth." And I believe she spoke honestly, at least from her perspective. She found clarity in her own certainty, even though it was anything but the reality shared by those who worked with her.

The really unfortunate thing about her "truth" was that it was unchangeable, even in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. People would do great things and she would pass them off as accidents or flukes. She was not about to let someone else's random possibilities disrupt her satisfying certainty. That would have been too much for her, so she held tightly to her judgments.

But let's face it; don't we all judge at some level or to some degree? What we learn from our experiences formulates our opinions and subsequently our inclination to judge. Even at a subconscious level, this conditioned response both protects us and prohibits us. It eliminates the possibilities we are unwilling to see because we have already determined what is or will be. How unfortunate. In a time when creativity and innovation are important to the success of any business, any restriction on new ideas seems counter-productive. No company can afford that.

How do we refrain from judging long enough to allow for the possibilities without succumbing to the fear of the uncertain? One way to do this is to cultivate a generous mindset. A generous mindset is the suspension of judgment during the short time between stimulus and response, with a predisposition to the optimistic possibilities. A generous mindset is about falling in love with the questions that seek an alternative reality that assumes our initial judgment could very well be wrong. When you act with a generous mindset, you start with the belief that the other person does not have any malicious intent. Then you take the courage to ask the questions that clarify their intent. When you do this, some pretty amazing conversations can arise.

Simply stated, a generous mindset is giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

However, maintaining a generous mindset takes a little time, and therefore runs in the face of the standard operating procedure of most projects-the tyranny of the urgent. It feels more efficient to immediately judge and go with what we believe to be true rather than take the time to question our assumptions. But when we don't question our assumptions, our self-inflicted blindness will usually catch up with us and cause longer delays. There is a lot of truth to the old adage, "Speed kills."

I have practiced maintaining a generous mindset with my wife and daughters for such a long time that when I make assumptions and subsequent judgments they are quick to point it out to me. My guess is that they take a secret joy in that, but for their learning, I will gladly be the object of their corrections. And those times I managed to reserve all judgments opened up many curious conversations with them that have helped me see the blues and reds in the trees.

Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope that extends far beyond me. It is stepping out into the uncertain abyss and knowing it will be OK. I can't ask for much more for my daughters, and it is something I work hard to develop in my teams.

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Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.


Very good article, however I see it very difficult to be able to have a mind focus on being generous.

If you have some more tips about this, it would be most welcome.


In addition to an MBA I also hold a Psychology degree and am in a project management business. I'm a avid supporter of the MBTI in a team environment. The article is slap in the centre of my interest! Also love your site and its contents. Utilising the MBTO obviously requires a lot more than the space allowed, but it is a very useful tool.


I liked your article very much. Many times I hear judgement being passed on a colleague of mine and because of my experience I decide to have an open mind about the person. Usually I am surprised because the person can be very different and capable of exceeding expectations. PMs who pass judgement and stick with their belief bring a lot of pain to a project and should not be project leaders. A PM once told me he treats his project team as if they were his children. He provides the tools they need, training if required and an opportunity to grow. He was open and had a generous mindset. Great advice from an expert which I have practiced with great results.

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