In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith warns leaders to shake the twenty bad habits that tend to become behavioral challenges. Out of 20 bad habits, passing judgment, the need to rate others and impose our standards on them, ranks high at number three. This habit in a leader is an implicit way of communicating the oxymoron, “If I want your opinion, I will give it to you.” This behavior is especially destructive when leaders are trying to be innovative and want to elicit the best ideas from their followers.
As a leader, whether you realize it or not, you have the power to shut down ideas before they get off the ground or out of someone else’s mouth. Rushing in with elaborate praise can temper your community’s engagement if they have different opinions. Likewise, excessive criticism of an idea can make others more hesitant to share their own ideas. Even overt encouragement of one idea can shut down ideas from others who may have a different, and no less valuable, approach to the issue at hand. For this reason, leaders should strive to be a leadership Switzerland – neutral, neither positive or negative, but open and receptive to anything someone is brave enough to throw out.
Examples of the subtle ways we prohibit others from sharing their insight and ideas occur within any group gathered for a purpose, even on family vacations. While spending a late summer vacation with family and friends in Jamaica, my brother David, the self-appointed leader, wanted to organize a bonfire. We were staying at rented a house on the beach where the ocean breeze was strong, steadily fanning the blistering heat of the Caribbean sun. When our local man-about-town, who served as our cab driver, tour guide, auto mechanic, caterer, escort, and hopeful bonfire organizer, planted the idea in my brother’s head, David ran with it. He thought it was a great idea and canvassed the room. His enthusiasm carried the conversation and made it impossible to disagree. Who wouldn’t want to have this much fun? Everyone agreed to the bonfire, even going as far as committing $20 apiece to give our guy.
But, when it was time to collect the money, the crowd was unusually mute. My brother was confused. I explained to him that no one wanted to tell him that it was 100 degrees and too hot for a bonfire. Furthermore, it was quite windy, and there was a concern that the fire might get out of control. He didn’t understand why no one expressed that earlier. I told him it was because he judged that it was such a great idea, no one dared to contradict him. He shut down the conversations about the heat and fire hazard.
The antidote to passing judgment, in many cases, is restraint. Leading requires an openness to everything your people have to offer, and sometimes this means tabling our own excitement and criticisms until everyone has had a chance to formulate and express their ideas. As a leader, we will find ourselves having to shut down crazy or dangerous things. But, we should be mindful of the effect that prematurely judging ideas has on those who might offer, for example, safer or more profitable notions.