Playing cards

Elements of good judgement

Building on my previous two articles about what makes a great CEO (remember, the insights apply to all of us), this month’s newsletter takes a key skill – good judgement – and examines it in more detail. Some of the insights are based on interviews with CEOs in many different companies conducted by Sir Andrew Likierman, a professor at London Business School, and detailed recently in the Harvard Business Review. I’ve added my own perspective based on my experience of coaching individuals and leadership teams over the years.

Do you ever ask yourself these questions:

  • Should you make a decision without all the facts, and in an environment where new information is coming in all the time?
  • When is the right time to make that judgement call? How will you judge you have enough information to make that decision?
  • How can you keep moving forwards confidently without being overly rash or cautious?

According to the professor, there are six basic components of good judgement. I’ll explore these ideas below, with my advice added.

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

1. Learning

There is a proliferation of information out there, ‘fake news’ is commonplace, and it’s hard to know fact from fiction.

When we receive information, it’s human nature to filter out certain pieces of data, usually because we don’t understand, or we disagree, or we don’t want to hear it, or we’re feeling overloaded. This is probably done unconsciously.

Also, my recent articles say that leaders who feel very comfortable in their role can become over-confident in their own ability, and stop listening attentively to information that comes in. I therefore suggest you become aware of what you tend to filter out so you can consciously hear and really listen to every piece of information you receive.

This links to the section about filtering out information in my article: Using language to influence behaviour

Tips for listening

  • Be aware of your own filters so you can reduce this effect
  • Fully listen to whatever you see and hear, and also attend to the body language of the other person. For example, if you are getting signals that they could say more but feel they can’t, are they filtering or ignoring this because of their own bias?
  • Try playing devil‘s advocate, and/or get people to give you different sides of the argument.

2. Trust

Know who your trusted advisors are, people whose judgement you respect. Note that, when you get a group of different people together, they are likely to disagree with each other – if this is “allowed” and accepted as normal it will increase the quality of overall judgement because it will force the group to see the issue from different angles. Your role as the leader is to hold the inevitable tension for long enough and in a safe way that allows the debate to take place.

This links to last month’s article about the Mindset and practices of the best leaders (part 2) – revisit the section about perspective, which covers why you should listen to people who tell you what you want to hear as well as those who tell you what you don’t and give you candid advice.

For more on building trust, check out this article: How to build trust: the core of all relationships

Further reading: Please ask for my one-page PDF handout ‘The 5 dysfunctions of a team’ by Patrick Lencioni. This gives an overview of the key behaviours required for teams to consistently deliver results – the first step is to build trust.

3. Experience

The experience you bring to your role Is invaluable. Ideally, you’ll have broad experience not just deep experience.

If you are in the early stage of your career, it will help you to get experience in different areas, so that when you are in your first big leadership role, you’ve got a breath of experience to draw on. This will increase your chances of making good judgement calls.

If you are the leader of people with talent and potential in your team, try to expose them to a wide variety of situations and stakeholders. This will give them experience that they will be able to draw on later in their career.

4. Detachment

When emotions run high people are more likely to over-react, and objective information and data get lost.

The ability to detach, not just emotionally, but also intellectually, will help you take a step back from the situation and look at it dispassionately. This enables you to stay calm when the stakes are high, and help people around you to feel safe enough to speak up.

Being detached can also help you avoid your personality biases – for example, if you have a tendency to avoid risk, or if you are rash about taking risks.

One thing you can do is step outside your own situation and see it from the point of view of your stakeholders, and there are some practical ways to do this. One obvious suggestion is to do this through a discussion with your team, by asking them to role-play being that stakeholder. Or you can set up a circle of chairs with each chair representing a different stakeholder. Sit in that chair, imagine being them, consider the impact on them, and then think about which decision this calls you to make.

“What’s beautiful about Taoism is that it teaches you to detach – not only from the world’s emotions and the emotions of your family and the people around you, but it teaches you to observe and detach from your own emotions. It’s almost like standing above yourself and watching what is going on rather than owning the whole opera. In learning to detach from your urges and disquietude, you become more clear, and less a victim of your own stuff.”
Infinite Self by Stuart Wilde

That quote reminds me of my article about Future-proofing yourself and your business, where I wrote about the Ronald Heifetz analogy from his ‘adaptive leadership’ model: When you are on the dance-floor, you are sucked into the operational aspect. When you are watching from the balcony, you are surveying the whole. So, every now and then, leave the dance-floor and go and stand on the balcony.

5. Options

Leaders are usually presented with options to make a decision about. What I find interesting is that they are often given just two options to choose from: either this or that. Actually, there are rarely just two options. You could expand them by asking: “What else could we do?”

Similarly, when I’m coaching people, they often tell me: “I have to do either this or that, “and I say: “Well, what else could you do?“

Whether you are a leader or a team player, hold the mindset that other options are often available. That might include doing nothing, or maybe piloting something.

If you are about to embark on something new, trialing it for a period of time or in a specific part of the business, can often help you make better judgements and reduce the risk if things don’t go in the way you were expecting. Piloting also helps you to discover unforeseen consequences that you might not have realised otherwise.

If you are being presented with options, then probe. Why does your advisor give you those choices? What data do they have to back them up?

If they explain which decision they think is right, ask: “What are your concerns with this option?” Invite them in a safe way to consider what could be wrong with their proposal, so that, even if you do go on to make that decision, you know what potential problems you will have to mitigate.

6. Delivery

The Harvard Business Review article says that once you have made your decision, it’s important to understand the risks and know who is best at mitigating and managing those risks.  Hopefully, if you have done a good job with questioning the options and playing devil’s advocate, you will be reasonably aware of the risks.

In determining who is best to manage/mitigate these risks, consider the skills, experience, mindset and behavioural traits required. In an agile world, the most effective leaders are those who effectively balance relationship management with strategic execution, and also speed with flexibility and stability.

This links back to section 3 of my article Mindset and practices of the best leaders (part 1) – knowing how to get the best people for the right role, and managing the development of their talent.


We are all called upon to make decisions every day, and it’s rare that there is an obvious right or wrong answer. If you feel overwhelmed, then go for a walk or sleep on it – this sometimes helps the right decision to become obvious – and gets you onto the balcony, rather than the dance-floor!

If you’d like to develop your skills in judgement or any of the topics touched on, please feel free to contact me for some time to think this through. At this time with most of us having to work from home, we are less likely to have informal contact to brainstorm ideas, so use your time wisely to continue your personal and professional development.

To conclude, here’s a poetic quote from HBR that explains the image heading this article…

”Leaders need many qualities, but underlying them all is good judgement. Those with ambition but no judgement run out of money. Those with charisma but no judgement lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgement, hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgement, get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgement will stack the cards in your favour.”

Further reading