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The Elements of Good Judgment in Leadership


Leadership requires good judgment in order to lead an organization effectively and is a complex and multifaceted domain that requires individuals to make critical decisions on a regular basis. At the core of effective leadership lies the ability to exercise good judgment—a skill that separates exceptional leaders from the rest. Good judgment is not a mere intuition or a stroke of luck; it is a carefully cultivated art that combines experience, knowledge, emotional intelligence, and a keen understanding of the context in which decisions are made.


Today we will explore four key elements of good judgment that effective leaders demonstrate: emotional intelligence, perspective taking, consideration of alternatives, and decision making under conditions of uncertainty.


Emotional Intelligence


Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognize and manage one's own emotions and the emotions of others. According to research by Goleman (1995), emotional intelligence plays a key role in effective leadership and is often a better predictor of success than IQ or technical skills alone. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are better able to:


  • Understand how their behaviors impact others and motivate them in a positive direction.

  • Build trust and buy-in through self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Resolve conflicts constructively by understanding different perspectives.


To develop emotional intelligence in a leadership role, some steps managers can take include:


  • Regular self-reflection on emotions triggered in difficult conversations and why certain situations may elicit strong reactions. This increases self-awareness.

  • Actively listening to understand how team members feel about decisions, goals, and day-to-day interactions. Reading body language and asking thoughtful questions provides insights.

  • Tailoring communication and management styles to individual preferences and work modes. Not everyone responds best to the same approach.


For example, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is known for his high emotional intelligence. He prioritizes understanding employee perspectives to make them feel valued. This people-first approach has been key to Starbucks' success in establishing a positive company culture.


Perspective Taking


Perspective taking refers to the cognitive capacity to understand a situation from others' point of view. The ability to see issues from different angles is an essential leadership skill according to research (Doris, 2002). Perspective taking allows leaders to:


  • Anticipate how decisions may affect various stakeholders to avoid negative reactions or resistance.

  • Break out of cognitive biases like blind spots, overconfidence, and fundamental attribution error which limit objectivity.

  • Mediate conflicts and disagreements by acknowledging the valid viewpoints on all sides.


To strengthen perspective taking abilities, leaders can:


  • Intentionally assign responsibility for devil's advocate roles to certain direct reports. This provides checks on one's own assumptions.

  • Schedule informal meetings with frontline employees to hear candid feedback firsthand. Shadowing others' day-to-day tasks also helps "walk a mile in their shoes."

  • Reframe disagreements as opportunities to learn rather than be "right." Admitting other viewpoints have merit models open-mindedness.


Netflix exemplifies this. The company encourages dissenting opinions to challenge status quo thinking and avoid "groupthink." Executive meetings follow a "no bullsh*t" policy to surface multiple angles on issues. This open culture fosters innovative solutions.


Consideration of Alternatives


Weighing various options before deciding a course of action is vital for good judgment. Ignoring alternatives risks overlooking better solutions or unintended consequences. Research finds considering the broadest possible range of choices reduces cognitive biases and faulty decision making (Baron, 2000). For leaders, this means:


  • Brainstorming with diverse groups to surface options beyond initial ideas. Involve outsiders to spark novel thinking.

  • Evaluating ideas based on multiple factors such as feasibility, risks, ethics rather than one dimension. A holistic view aids balance.

  • Modeling an experimental mindset willing to pilot different approaches. Failing fast from low-risk tests is preferable to costly mistakes.


Amazon exemplifies exploring alternatives. Before major product launches, leadership considers unconventional ideas from any level. Experiments include pop-up stores to assess customer reactions in real-world settings. This iterative process spawns hit devices like the Echo while avoiding wasted investment.


For managers, carving time for alternatives generation, maintaining an ideas repository, and circulating discussion papers encourages new perspectives.


Decision Making


Under Conditions of UncertaintyThere will always be unknown factors when making important strategic calls. Yet research shows deliberate processes can help navigate uncertainty more effectively (Milliken, 1987). For leaders, this involves:


  • Defining intolerable levels of risk upfront to guide decisions within acceptable boundaries. Clear guardrails avoid drift.

  • Establishing triggers for shifting or reversing course as new information emerges. Flexible frameworks adjust nimbly.

  • Openly acknowledging uncertainty and fallibility to build buy-in for experimentation. Humility engenders support.


Netflix takes this approach. When expanding abroad, the company treated each market as a "learn-as-you-go" experiment. Specific targets guided progress while allowing room to learn from failures. Transparency around unknowns forged understanding as approaches inevitably shifted based on data. This iterative model enabled Netflix to successfully globalize.


Conclusion


Developing strong elements of judgment like emotional intelligence, perspective taking, consideration of alternatives, and decision making under uncertainty is crucial for leadership excellence. Regardless of industry or organization type, leaders who exercise good judgment through intentional reflection and processes to mitigate biases will make wiser calls and navigate complex challenges more effectively. While judgment skills require lifelong refinement, the frameworks discussed provide actionable steps current and aspiring leaders can implement today to advance to the next level. With continued focus on strengthening these foundational abilities, leaders are better equipped to lead their organizations into the future with confidence and impact.


References


  • Baron, J. (2000). Thinking and deciding (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

  • Doris, J. M. (2002). Lack of character: Personality and moral behavior. Cambridge University Press.

  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books.

  • Milliken, F. J. (1987). Three types of perceived uncertainty about the environment: State, effect, and response uncertainty. Academy of management review, 12(1), 133-143.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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