ELI Blog

Matters of Judgment Can Be Taught: Dealing with Ambiguous Workplace Behavior

|August 31, 2010|No Comments

Contrary to popular belief, judgment can be taught. As I wrote in last week’s post, “Matters of Judgment Can Be Taught: Starting with Leader (Mis)Behavior”, most leaders know the rules, but some choose to disregard them, in a misguided belief that the same standards don’t apply to them, that they won’t be caught, or that their great value to the organization overrides any misdeeds.

Where ambiguous workplace issues are concerned, it has become even trickier to determine when certain behavior crosses a line or whether it is merely a nettlesome business issue that requires careful factual analysis and an examination of the issues within the broader context of multiple circumstances.

Sometimes behavior that appears innocuous – a glance or stray comment – will suggest a clear violation of a policy when combined with other facts. In other situations, comments that seem improper at first will later reveal something else entirely.

This is what happened with the recent case involving a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, regarding several isolated statements made in a speech that were not evaluated within the full context of her remarks. Ms. Sherrod was summarily forced to resign from her position as the Georgia state director of rural development. After it was learned that her remarks were taken out of context, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered Ms. Sherrod a new job at the agency, which she reportedly declined last week.  The lessons in the USDA controversy? A rush to judgment (not to mention, a failure to gather all the facts) rarely ends well, as I wrote in arecent blog post.

Lately, I’ve worked with some gifted business leaders, academicians and physicians. What struck me again and again was how difficult it was for them to deal with ambiguous situations.

Each of these leaders wanted clear examples and rules for every situation they might encounter. In essence, they were saying, “Yes, we know the blatant stuff. But we need to know how to definitively handle every gray area case.”

In my experience, leaders often don’t want to hear that the proper answer may be: “get help.”  While physicians frequently must seek advice and input from other skilled colleagues to find solutions to ambiguous problems in their medical practices, they may balk when it is suggested that they do so in cases involving a human resource issue outside their field of expertise.  By the same token, academicians are required to use rigorous testing and careful analysis of hypotheses but many object to applying the same disciplines to complex people issues.

The way to teach judgment for these gray-area issues is to employ learning tools that compare a situation in their own disciplines to a workplace issue. Here are just two examples:

  • To the physician who doesn’t understand why a certain action could seem retaliatory: Don’t you see symptoms all the time that can be malignant or benign, pending more information? Why is this human resource issue any different?
  • To the academician who doesn’t understand why an evaluation they give can seem discriminatory when compared to that received by others: Don’t you teach your students to dig for all the facts before reaching a conclusion or proving a theory? What is the difference?

Judgment can be taught after all.  Leaders must recognize that standards and rules apply to everyone, no exceptions. Where ambiguous situations occur, good judgment involves getting help and recognizing that many people problems are complex – just like the professional and business challenges that leaders in any field encounter every day.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of award-winning learning solutions that transform complex laws and ethical codes of conduct into simple behavioral rules that help organizations improve employee performance, reduce legal and ethical risk, and create civil, productive workplaces. Mr. Paskoff is the former Co-Chair of the American Bar Association’s Compliance Law Training and Communication Subcommittee. He can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.

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