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17 January 2019
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Sitting in judgement

12 October 2015 

That one of the things that leaders have to do is to make decisions is beyond question, but it is the quality of those decisions that separate good leaders from the herd, blogs John Bowen.


In an ideal world decision-making would be simple because the facts would speak for themselves and the decision would be an easy one, but life in the real world is hard and what is required is another, often overlooked, skill. 

That skill is the ability to judge, to be able to absorb and weigh information, to know when you have enough information and when you need to ask for more, and if you need more what do you need. It is a skill that can be learned, but it needs an open mind to master.


People who regularly make decisions often see themselves as good at it; they are decisive, so they must be good, but in my own experience some of the most decisive people are often among the worst because they show little sign of having any real skill in terms of judgement.


Assertiveness is often seen as being decisive, but it is not a substitute for judgement in arriving at a considered solution, largely because decisiveness often goes with a closed mind. The person has come quickly to his or her conclusion and nothing now will sway them from their chosen course.


I have seen this regularly over the years, but three examples where it can be measured are in judging for industry awards, interviewing candidates for jobs, and in reviewing business cases because in each of these there will some form of scoring framework involved. The purpose of a marking frame is to establish a level platform against which different options can be compared like for like. The decisive person will tend to judge the options without recourse to the marking frame and then try hard to fit scores in whereas someone who is better at judging will use the frame as a tool throughout the process, gathering the necessary evidence as they go.


Which route is better? Just because you have poor judgement skills does not mean that you will not be successful because there are plenty of successful examples of those who regularly demonstrate poor judgement – and there are also plenty of people who are very good at judging things who are not that successful in their careers. Decisive people tend to be charismatic and that is an important leadership quality in its own right.


But people who can weigh up a situation better will generally do better as leaders because they will make fewer mistakes and that will engender a greater level of trust from their followers. A decisive leader may appear attractive, but if his or her decisions are less well founded it will be their followers who feel the pain and that decisiveness will begin to look more like arrogance, especially if they show little interest in owning up to their failings.


A good leader will be seen to be doing the right thing if he can demonstrate good judgement and his followers will be happier to keep following, even through the toughest decisions. It is a skill that can be learned, but the barrier to learning for the people who need it most is their unwillingness to recognise that they need to change; their lack of judgement prevents them from seeing that they have a problem.


John Bowen is an FM consultant