The Formula for Good Judgment (and The Cure for Bad Judgment)

The Formula for Good Judgment (and The Cure for Bad Judgment)

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Fancy decision making models abound in business, but they are not what leaders use day-to-day, meeting-to-meeting. Decision making in that environment is based on human judgment. Not surprisingly, good judgment equals good decision making and bad judgment equals bad decision making. Fortunately, good judgment is learnable.

But first, it helps to explore “bad judgment,” because therein lies the formula to good judgment. Think about the times you’ve accused someone of outrageously “bad judgment”; odds are the situation fell into one of these two, opposite categories.

#1: Missing the Bigger Point

You know the aphorism, “He can’t see the forest for the trees.” That represents one kind of bad judgment: Being so focused on the details that larger issues are lost.

Old joke alert: You’ve probably heard the one about the three tourists captured by cannibals in French New Guinea. To kill the tourists, the cannibals set up a guillotine abandoned by French colonialists. Tearful and shaking, the first tourist got on his knees, with his head forced into the guillotine. The blade was released and shot down the length of the guillotine only to stop a few millimeters from the tourist’s neck. The cannibals took this as a sign from above that the man was to be released, and so he was. The second tourist . . . okay, okay, we’ll spare you . . . same thing happened. As the third tourist, an engineer, got on his knees, his trained eyes squinted up at the mechanism. A smile washed over his face and he beamed at the cannibal leader, “Hey, Chief! I think I know your problem!”


But we see this deadly dumb focus on details all the time. We see military briefers who will, BY GOLLY, plod through each and every PowerPoint slide, regardless of the interests or needs of the audience. We see software writers who are determined to add that ONE MORE FEATURE, until a market window is utterly lost. And the list goes on and on. Sometimes it is, indeed, damnation that is in the details.

#2: Missing the Finer Points

There is an opposite problem. Although it’s not an accepted aphorism, there are people who can’t see the trees for the forest. You might get the occasional big, broad idea from them, but it will be without understanding what it takes to achieve the idea. And we’ve all seen the imperious executive spouting The Big Directive, clueless about what balls will be dropped, or other repercussions incurred in pursuit of this shiny new object, or as a result of it.

Nineteenth century economist Frédéric Bastiat used this idea in distinguishing between bad economists and good economists:

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

The Formula For Good Judgment

Both kinds of bad judgment beget bad side effects. What’s the cure for either type of bad judgment? Combine them both. Fuse the two kinds of bad judgment together, and then you get good judgment. Kind of like sodium and chloride; separate, they’re poison. Together, they’re salt.

If you want to develop good judgment (or help someone else achieve it), learn to do both kinds of judgment, starting with your preferred style, and then consciously and deliberately, looping over to the other style, and back again a few times. That’s it.

So, if you’re a tree-type person (the engineer in the guillotine), go ahead and focus on your critical details, but then loop back the other way. Give meaning and context to the details by asking questions such as:

  • What’s the ultimate point here?
  • What were we originally funded to produce?
  • What’s the broader impact of the decision I’m considering? Could anything negative be created by my positive intentions?

Then loop back over to “crucial details” and see if you still like the game plan or want to alter it a bit. Make a couple of little-picture/big-picture loops until you are satisfied with your thinking. That’s how good judgment works: you work from side to side, like the Texas two-step.

On the other hand, if you’re a forest-type person (Mr. or Ms. Big Thinker), then go ahead and revel in that Big Picture, but then loop over to detail-land with questions such as:

  • What would be the first, concrete step?
  • What will it take to make this happen, in terms of time, money, and effort?
  • What might we have to STOP doing in order to do this thing?
  • Who else, or what else, might I affect with this effort?

After you’ve got some of those grimy details in hand, loop back to your lofty heights and see if you still like the scenery. Again, consciously and deliberately, jog around this track a few times. It is the only way to move from a vaporous vision to an actionable one – and one that you’ll be proud of when it’s achieved.

Whether you’re a big-picture or a detail-oriented type, if you make the loop enough times, in the end you’ll be able to see the forest AND the trees. One direction will feel natural to you, but the other you will have to push yourself toward consciously and deliberately. With practice, good decision making will become habit.


Acknowledgements: It would be lousy judgment if we didn’t credit the smart guy who came up with this model. Years ago, our friend and former colleague (and intercultural communication overlord) Dr. Milton Bennett spouted this off in a class we were co-teaching. It made loads of sense and has stuck with us ever since.

Published: May 25, 2015


          • I think this is great by going to both kinds of judgment, starting with your preferred style by looping over to the other style and then back again a few times. I think using good judgment requires a healthy mental state, a willingness to think through issues and having confidence in yourself.


          • It helps to understand where one is in the two thinking styles: Inductive/Deductive. This will determine the kinds of examples used to support a point. A presentation should have structure appropriate to the purpose/goal.


          • Hailee, thank you!

        • There is multiple ways to making good judgement but the best way is to see both sides of the story or scenario. This way you can eliminate the bad judgement which in a way could mean that two bad judgments make a good judgement but that isn’t always the case.


        • Marshall Houston

          This article seems very true, especially for younger children. My little brother always seems to miss the point of everything I try to convince him; he always tries to find flaws in what I say rather than learn from it. Now yes, I probably was like that when I was his age, but I learned from my mistakes and sought after a way to improve myself.


        • This article really made me think about bad vs good judgement. It made me want to think more about life in a big picture way.


        • Adrianna Butler

          I think this article really explains two ways of looking at a problem and solution. Its main points focus on looking at the big picture in a decision rather than just a small outcome.


        • This article is very realistic for how people deal with situations. It speaks to me in particular, that people can’t see both the little and small pictures of a situation. this is what causes problems for many people.


        • It helps to understand where one is in the two thinking styles Inductive and Deductive. This will determine the kinds of examples used to support a point.


        • I think this is great by going to both kinds of judgment, starting with your preferred style by looping over to the other style and then back again a few times. I think using good judgment requires a healthy mental state, a willingness to think through issues and having confidence in yourself. By also breaking down the elements of the decision you are faced with in your mind. Consider your objectives, alternatives, the consequences of your decision and any potential road blocks.


        • When thinking out plans or goals , I include very detailed thoughts. As stated in the article, I also loop back to analyze the most crucial details–totally agree with the statement/tip.


        • This is a great article! This helped me identify that I am more of a forest type person. Now I know to remember to look at what the first concrete step is.


        • Julia Hatfield

          What i got from this article is that it is always important to look at the bigger picture before making rash decisions. It is also imporatnt to listen to the enitre story and consider all sides before reacting


        • It is important to look at the bigger picture and think of everything when looking into making good decisions. it is also important to think about all the consequences before making a decision in order to make good decisions.


        • Wow that was a very thought out and well done article! I loved all the examples and explanations that you said, that make this article much easier to understand your point. I love what you said about making good judgement, about mixing two bad to make one good. I have never thought about it like that. I also loved what you said about asking yourself the questions before turning them into actions like “What is the ultimate point here.”


        • Understanding both sides of good judgement is extremely important. Most often, people lack one of those. Knowing the bigger picture and understanding the small details that go into the big picture are what truly makes good judgement. I focus on both but am way more detail oriented. This article made perfect sense and was very helpful.


        • I completely agree with what you are saying. I feel like too few people understand the good judgment in your argument and this causes lots of problems in the work community.


        • It is very important to know what you are going and the judgement of what you are doing before you react to what you were doing. The way you react is going depend on the judgement that will put you in a good way or a bad way and the impact of you towards your friends.


        • George, I think you’re right that it helps to understand whether your perspective on an issue is inductive or deductive. But then, we’re suggesting stitching between the two before thinking that you’ve got a good handle on the issue. That does a pretty good job of building in the self-correction you cite.

          But, yeah, when you switch to rhetorical mode, you need to know your audience’s POV and then craft your message. Have you had a chance to look at our giveaway on the main blog page (Important People: How to Present to Them)?

          Thanks much for your comments, George — nothing “loopy” (in a bad way) there!


        • George Abney

          It helps to understand where one is in the two thinking styles: Inductive/Deductive. This will determine the kinds of examples used to support a point. A presentation should have structure appropriate to the purpose/goal. Its really a rhetorical balance issue in terms of thought structure in language. I like the loop point. I’ve been called “loopy” myself but there must be a system of self correction or there can be no standard of progress and effectiveness.


        • Absolutely. Got to be able to keep the big picture in mind, deal with the details, AND step back from time to time to survey the overall environment.

          About 20 years ago I took a Hemisphericity Workshop at Polaroid in Boston. The course was required for all Polaroid managers. The company had found that the engineers who made the company work and the visionaries who came up with the big ideas tended to have difficulties communicating. The thing that most stuck with me was that if there was difficulty, the left brain person would get more detailed and the right brain person would get higher level in their explanations. However, if the person they were talking to was the opposite type, this only increased the frustration levels and miscommunication.

          The Polaroid solution was employees posted their “brain maps” on their office doors and in their cubicles so that all comers would know to become more detailed in their explanations when speaking to the left brain person and more big picture when a right brain person required clarification.

          BTW: I was tuitioned into the workshop as a “right brain” person, since the workshop required balance and there was a preponderance of engineers. However, my “brain map” was a bit atypical in that I had a narrow spike into a left section of my brain. Well, I was dyslexic and it took me awhile to figure it out in school but I did, and I excelled in Algebra. In the real world, it’s both a boon and a hinderance. I shift tacks very easily and quickly. It makes it difficult for people to characterize me. Keeping the Polaroid lessons in mind helps a great deal. Additionally, being able to come hard about (another sailing term for your landlubbers) is a great boon in analysis and project management.


        • Thanks, Karen. Sounds like you have an interesting brain, indeed! But you’re right: the ability to come hard about is a boon — and we say “come hard about SEVERAL TIMES” before you think you’ve got the grasp of something.

      • brianlmerritt

        If you absolutely see the big picture, and you’ve got a great grasp on the details, and yet no one else can see it, then what do you do?

        Every good judgement then requires translating into the separate languages of the forest watchers and the tree huggers and the leaf collectors and the…


      • Yep. If you have made the good judgement loop a couple of time and understand the issue, then you will STILL have to enter the frame of reference of whomever you communicate with. Detail-oriented people will need to see lots of details (and maybe a peek at the big picture), and big picture people will need to see a big picture (a picture, literally is what they sometimes need), and maybe a peek at the details, or reassurance that someone they trust has got the details covered.

    • Hi B&W
      I like this article. I might also note that bad judgment results when people mistake what is easiest, most convenient, most familiar, or least frightening for what is most effective.


    • Well, now lets first define judgment. Is judgment the same as making decisions? Is it transferable [the same] between business and personal?

      Is it defined as the ability to have good outcomes? If yes then what then defines “good”. Is “good” the outcome of bosses or outcomes that are personally beneficial? Donald Trump appears to have good judgment for he seems to get what he wants. For that matter what is bad judgment? Is bad judgment to invest in Donald Trump? Or is it never being able to pick winners at the track? Is it good or bad judgment to keep buying a powerball ticket on each time it rolls around? I suppose it is good if you win, and bad if you don’t.

      There are very specific rules for interacting with people, there are very specific rules for decision making, there are very specific rules for negotiating.

      This is quotable however, “everyone learns from their mistakes. sadly most people learn to repeat them.”

      Paul S


    • Okay. We’re blushing! Thanks so much (THAT should keep us going another week or so!).


    • Bill and Wendi,
      Thank you for these wonderful snippets! My days are sooo busy and time sooo precious that I loathe the many “distracter” emails that I received daily, even hourly!

      Far from being distractions, your posts are always most appreciated! The topics are pertinent and the information is applicable immediately. Each one, in and of itself, is a superb example of the “Three Cs of effective communication” (clear, concrete, concise). So well written, such great examples. Nice work.

      CAPT Matthew W. Pommer Jr.


    • I am a big picture thinker and I know that is my biggest weakness, so I like to include detailed-oriented people in any decision I make. The key is to make sure you really listen to them. This is the true power of diversity of thought.


    • Totally agree, Sam. That IS the power of a diverse team. Of course, you have to know how to harness that power, and not let one person take over — until it’s time for a decision. (Someday we’re gonna write a piece on how to use structured group processes to do just that. A lot of our work, such as our Results Roundtable, relies on exactly what you are referring to.)

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