Start with Observations, Not Judgments – David Marquet
David Marquet - Intent Based Leadership: Create Leaders at Every Level

Start with Observations, Not Judgments

A team of people looks at the same situation and comes to different conclusions about what is happening and what should be done.  Why does this happen?

Humans are exceptionally good at interpreting their environment and making assessments.  Our brains are wired to follow a progression from observation => judgment => action.  This was useful on the African savanna when we heard a rustle in the tall grass.  Rustle => lion (danger) => run.  But in groups, this quick progression can lead us astray by focusing our thoughts on the action or decision to be made without understanding what each member of the team knows.

Because of our evolutionary adaptation to process observations into judgments we tend to debate at the end of the observation => judgment => action chain rather than at the beginning.  In other words, we argue about what we should be doing in a certain situation rather than starting with what we all see (or know).

Leaders traditionally view their role as managing this decision. This is problematic because it will not lead to consistently optimized decisions. Research by Professors Amy C. Edmondson and Michael A. Roberto[1] at Harvard has shown that information held by more team members has more influence over the decision independent of the validity of the information.  In other words, important valid information held by few team members is underweighted in the decision-making discussion.

The leader’s role is to first make sure we all know what we all know. This is done by creating mechanisms to give voice to quieter members of the group to discover what they know.

The individual’s responsibility is to share the information they know, especially if it doesn’t seem to be something the other members of the group are talking about. Just because you see something, doesn’t mean everyone else sees it as well.

How can we practice?

Ask your team what they “see” in the following photograph.  Typically, you will get answers like “celebration,” “happy sports fans,” “goal just scored,” and so on.

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Actually, we don’t “see” any of those things. We see a man wearing a striped jersey with arms raised, head raised, mouth open, eyes open, and so on. You can pick another photograph and ask your team to describe what they see.

We learn two things from this exercise:

  1. Not everyone will see the same thing so don’t assume that everyone sees what you see. This is the individual’s responsibility.
  2. When in groups, work to understand what everyone sees. The leader’s job is to draw out each individual’s observation and contribution. Be curious about dissenting opinions and ask questions like “what are you seeing that makes you think that?” This is the leader’s responsibility.

Next time someone disagrees with you be curious about what they see that you might not see.  Rabbit or duck?

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[1] Edmondson, A, M. A. Roberto, and M. Watkins. (2003) “A Dynamic Model of Top Management Team Effectiveness: Managing Unstructured Task Streams.” Leadership Quarterly 14(3): 297-325.

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0 thoughts on “Start with Observations, Not Judgments”

  1. mcherock

    I find this post incredibly applicable to taking on a significant challenge in teams and achieving overall better organizational performance. I find the “rush to judgement” plagues our ability to see what is really occurring which then leads to re-work many times over on the same issue, or some variation of the original issue – deformed from continually being kicked around. To me it feels like holding a hammer with your eyes closed and trying to hit a finish nail. You kind of know where it is, and eventually you’ll either bludgeon the nail in or break it by swinging away – either way its messy, takes more time than it should, and costs more. Translated to business – starting with and operating from judgement is so dam expensive and inefficient.

    The question I have is what can we do to encourage the pause needed to observe. I said “rush to judgement” earlier in my response because when we eventually realize the real issue after so much wasted effort and cost – the answer is “I didn’t have enough time”. Is it simply requiring to ask “what do you see?”?.

  2. Rick

    I think you hit the nail on the head (but I didn’t say it was easy). Skill development and training is needed to teach yourself to “take a moment”, challenge your assumption(s) and ask yourself a few questions (whatever those questions might be that help to slow you down and open up your thinking), just take the time to ask before you move on that judgement……….learn to observe, not witness, but observe. learn to listen, not hear, but listen and resist the “rush to judgement”. I say this as though it’s easy or I have it licked. I DON’T, I just continue working on developing this skill………every day. And as a Jung Typology Personality Type ENFJ (J-judging of 11%), I have some work to do.

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