What is one thing we do all the time? No, I am not referring to breathing or sitting, but to making assessments of the world around us. Right now, you may be thinking, this is going to be boring, or the opening question is good. Those are opinions or assessments.
Making assessments is crucial to our performance in many areas including building competence for ourselves and our team‑mates. Too often, though, I find that people make assessments very casually, with little commitment to action or to the people involved. People also tend to hear assessments as if they were permanent truths about a person’s character. When they listen to a negative assessment in this way, people often feel defensive, guilty or upset. They are cut off from what they might learn if they could listen more openly. Conversely, when they listen to a positive assessment in this way they might become complacent and not see it as an opportunity to grow.
I want to make one claim very clearly: assessments are not eternal truths. We make assessments to further our work together and to improve.
Making assessments is something each of us does every day. For instance, whenever we say that Bill did an outstanding job, or Aaron is difficult to work with, or that Eva is a good boss, we are making assessments or characterizations.
What takes place whenever a characterization is made? It seems as if we are describing some truth about a person. Thus, we might believe indisputably a person is intelligent or not; he is honest or dishonest; she is hard‑working or lazy; and so on. Characterizations, then, are usually taken as an actual description of someone’s personality. We have the tendency to lose sight of the fact that they are opinions, not facts. But assessments or characterizations are not descriptions. They are judgments, or interpretations.
Consider some of the kinds of assessments people might make about “Samantha”:
- “Samantha is really smart.”
- “Samantha has a bright future ahead of her in the company.”
- “Samantha is a nerd who studied too much in school and doesn’t know how to have fun.”
This kind of statement is neither true nor false, they are judgments or interpretations. And it’s not clear that they are all useful for producing action. Calling Samantha “smart”, for example, doesn’t help you to decide where she’s competent and can be relied upon, and where she isn’t. And how can calling her a “nerd” be helpful to her especially if it’s said behind her back, as it probably would be?
We are all opinionated. The value of our opinions lies not in whether it is true or false, but in whether it is useful for helping one take action to address one’s concerns. You can’t stop making assessments, you can see them for what they are and make them useful.