You’ve probably heard phrases such as “criticize the behavior, not the person.” The intent is to focus your guidance to another person in the right place to achieve the desired effect when managing. (Or parenting, or similar.)
It’s a useful technique. Drawing a distinction between “Joe did a poor job on the project” versus “Joe is a failure” is crucial. This type of advice has broad applications in many relationships, in fact. For example, therapists often advise people working through conflicts to make “I” statements, which focus on your own feelings rather than the other’s actions: “When you speak to me that way, I feel disrespected” rather than “You’re disrespecting me.”
Most such advice has its basis in a common root: avoiding projecting your worldview onto what you’re observing. If you can become aware that you’re an observer, and that your observations aren’t reality, then you can step out of the situation and become a much more calm, rational actor in the situation.
Confusing the person’s identity or nature with their behavior, or confusing reality with your observations of it, are just a few of many possible mistakes you can make when managing and coaching. I like to think of these mistakes in a continuum.
- Joe is a failure. (Judging Joe’s identity).
- Joe doesn’t care about this project. (Judging Joe’s intentions or character).
- Joe is dumb/weak/ignorant/etc. (Joe’s abilities, knowledge, training.)
- Joe didn’t try. (Joe’s effort.)
- Joe didn’t do what was required for this project. (Joe’s activities.)
- Joe didn’t do this project correctly. (Joe’s methods.)
- Joe didn’t succeed at this project. (Joe’s results.)
At the one end, you pass judgment on who you think the person is. At the other end, you judge only the results.
It may seem that the purest type of guidance you can give is based only on the results, but my experience has been that it’s possible to miss the mark no matter what. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to sit in judgment of someone’s identity, but even at the opposite extreme, you can get into trouble. For example, if your policy is “get it done, and I’m not going to ask how,” you are signaling that the ends justify the means, and that often goes badly.
Ultimately, giving good guidance requires a focus first and foremost not on the other person, but on yourself. Self-awareness is required to assess others well.
Originally published at Passing Judgment: From Ad Hominem To Anything Goes.