In turbulent times like a recession or a post-merger integration, the issue of low trust can escalate from a chronic condition to a major flare-up. In a flare-up people imagine the worst, jump to conclusions, and make dangerous judgments. An org practice that helps people reverse engineer their dangerous judgments can help an organization ride the turbulence to a higher level of trust.
Low levels of trust in many organizations are akin to a chronic condition, and chronic conditions can be much harder to treat than acute ones, because, well, “they are not that bad. It’s not that big of a deal.” So acute flare-ups, as difficult as they are, provide a unique opportunity to treat a chronic condition. And there are plenty of flare-ups. Major changes in organizational context (e.g., recession, new competitors, new regulations, M&A, change in management) often put a particular kind of stress on an organization and feed people’s worst fears.
The period between the announcement of a merger and the end of the first couple of months of the integration process is a perfect litmus test for the level of trust and fear in an organization. While the merging companies are trying to clear regulatory hurdles and get Board approvals, information tends to be scarce. No matter how perfect the integration planning process, it is difficult to plan out every detail and think through every possible angle, especially if you have tens of thousands of people involved. The higher the level of trust, the less time people spend worrying about their future (“I trust my manager to stick his neck out for me.”) The lower the level of trust, the more time people spend worrying about their future role, title, etc., and the rumor mill often kicks into high gear and feeds an underground factory where people use a mix of facts and rumors to manufacture preemptively negative judgments in accordance with their worst fears (“I need to know what’s going on because if I don’t take care of myself, my manager certainly won’t.”) Things can get ugly fast.
The treatment plan could be as follows: First get initial intel on the judgments manufactured at the judgment factory by simply talking to a representative sample of people across the organization—what do they make of the merger? What are they excited about and why? What are they worried about and why? Organize and share (anonymous) responses with the leadership team. If the level of trust is low enough, the responses will probably be colorful enough to create momentum for action.
The treatment itself could then be framed as introducing a new organizational practice. Call it “the Judgment Factory.” The objective of the practice is to shed the light of awareness on and give people the language and tools to look at how they arrive at their conclusions about each other (“we”) and about what’s going on (“it”). Here is what the practice entails:
- Recognize the output of the Judgment Factory: a judgment!
- Avoid debating the judgment.
- Instead, double click on the raw data. What was the raw data that they are basing their judgment on? What did they see, hear, or experience?
- Double click on the manufacturing process: what did they make out of this raw data?
- Ask: is this the only possible interpretation? Is this a representative sample?
- Send them to the source armed with inquiry.
Judgments are not instrinsically bad. The real issue is that most of us have an unexamined and automatic manufacturing process. It's automated! Hasty judgments based on a poor relationship to the facts and distorted interpretations lead to the the bulk of the problem.
Here is how this practice could look in real life between an employee and his manager. [It makes sense to try the practice out first on the judgments people manufacture about business challenges (“it”) rather than on interpersonal issues (“we”) because to reverse-engineer judgments about each other typically requires a greater level of trust, which is short supply in a low-trust situation.]
Tom (employee who is afraid that the merger will lead to a significant curtailing of his freedom): “Company X is a big machine. Things take forever—it's slow moving, bureaucratic. I’ll just be another cog in the machine.”
Paul (Tom’s manager): We might have a case of the Judgment Factory going on here, Tom. Is now a good time to look at this?
Tom: Yeah, sure.
Paul: Give me some raw data. Explain to me what you saw, heard, or experienced.
Tom: “I had a meeting with my counterpart at company X. I wanted to make a simple decision. He said that he didn’t think the two of us could decide on this by ourselves and that he would have to check in with his boss first. If I’m not empowered to make the simplest decision I used to make all by myself, I will suffocate in that place. That place is so hierarchical. I am out of here.”
Paul: “Ok, I get it, you’re pissed, but let’s slow down. So the data that you heard was that he needed to check with his boss, right?”
Paul: Ok. Then you interpreted that in a particular way: that he was not empowered to make that decision, right?
Paul: And based on that interpretation you manufactured a judgment: that you will be a cog in the machine if you work for X.
Tom: Yeah, it sounds weird when you say it that way, but that’s true.
Paul: You may be right, he may not be empowered to make that decision and you may become a cog in the machine, but I don’t know that yet. Is your interpretation the only possible interpretation of what happened in that meeting?
Tom: What do you mean?
Paul: Well, is there some other way to interpret the raw data? Is it possible that the guy had some good reasons to want to check with his boss first?
Tom: Oh, I never thought about that. I guess so. Yeah. Ah, well, maybe he just wanted his boss’s opinion. Maybe they collaborate on stuff. I don’t know. I guess it could be a whole lot of things.
Paul: Right. Exactly. It could be a whole lot of things. And even if it is true that he was not empowered to make that decision, should you jump to a judgment about an entire organization based on a single conversation?
Tom: Yeah, that does seem kind of ridiculous now.
Paul: Hey, we all do it. What do you think about going back to this guy and asking him what he meant by his comment and finding out more about how decisions are made around there?
So, that’s the basic idea behind reverse-engineering the output from the Judgment Factory. Now, how do you scale it, how do you turn it into an organization-wide practice? In the context of an integration, the Judgment Factory could be introduced to everyone involved in the integration process and to all the leaders whose teams are undergoing the most significant changes. It could then be the leaders’ job to introduce this practice to their teams. Unlike the usual resistance to treating a chronic condition, leaders may be way more likely to pick this practice up and put it to use because without it they don’t have a way to control the inevitable fallout (e.g., major diversion of energy and attention, drop in performance, and talent walking out the door, etc).
The Judgment Factory is, in essence, a practice for collective reflection. It gives people the language and tools to look into or reverse-engineer the judgments they often hastily manufacture about their circumstances and about each other (sometimes their judgments turn out to be accurate, but most often not). Few bosses are intentionally evil and de-humanizing, although that is exactly what many employees conclude. Few employees are intentionally lazy and initiative-less, although that is exactly what many bosses conclude. Both sides usually have reasons but are rarely aware of what the other side’s reasons are. The Judgment Factory could be used to help an organization treat the acute flare-ups of fear but it could also become a practice that—if carried forward—could help deal with chronic low levels of trust.
Here are some early reports from a clinical trial we’ve conducted to treat an emotionally charged post-merger integration:
- People are using the Judgment Factory to keep cool in an emotionally charged acquisition. People see that they are jumping to conclusions. As one woman said, “I feel like I have a pause and rewind button. I may still decide that company X is not for me, but it won’t be based on some underground Judgment Factory. It will be based on a well-examined choice.”
- People have begun to use The Judgment Factory in other ways—it went viral. Now, when people put forth ideas about how to solve a problem in a team meeting, people don’t always ignore or dismiss an idea that they do not like. Instead people ask questions like, “What is the raw data that you are you basing that idea on? Are you seeing something that I am not seeing?” That means that people are now exchanging a different kind of information: they are exchanging raw data (intel from the field which everyone desperately needs) and what they make out of that intel (which means that they can challenge each others’ assumptions rather than their conclusions), and they tend to avoid the rarely-productive judgment debate.
- Misunderstandings are inevitable in even the best working relationships. They are normal. Instead of misunderstandings dividing people and instilling suspicion, fear, and paranoia, people are using the Judgment Factory to get a reality check on their own private (and often distorted) interpretations, clear the air, uncover new ways of looking at the same issue, and to build stronger relationships. (e.g., "You know you said something the other day in our team meeting that made me a bit angry, and I created this whole story in my head. When I realized what I was doing I thought I would come back to you and just ask, what did you mean when you said that?")
On a small scale, anybody can simply launch their own trial of the Judgment Factory.
To stage an organization-wide adoption of the treatment, timing is everything—an imminent flare-up or the early stages of a flare-up are often the perfect time. The steps and the contents of the treatment are described under “Solution.”