The Importance of Judgement
two paths


The most important life skill uncovered over the tumultuous last two years of the pandemic is judgement. Judgement is critical for interpreting the news that we see and hear. Judgement is required to manage the risk of the pandemic to one’s own health and one’s family. Judgement is needed to navigate chaotic markets, soaring house prices and widespread inflation. From leadership of countries and companies all the way down to how one navigates their own daily life, judgement is the indispensable skill that differentiates between successful and poor outcomes.

Through it all, I think we can all agree that we’ve seen some abysmal failures in judgement over the past two years. A pandemic is ultimately a science issue, and I think we’ve seen both massive successes and terrible failures in judgement from the scientific community. By no means do I not agree with scientists – I studied chemical engineering in my undergraduate program. I have worked in labs, know my way around industrial chemical plants and worked on instrumentation for biotech fermenters. I deeply admire scientists and greatly respect the scientific method and would point to this exemplary piece by the NY Times on just how the mRNA vaccines came through the culmination of decades of hard work built on top of teams from disparate disciplines all around the world.

However, my criticism in this case is levied at science in the face of uncertainty. The scientific method is exemplary at fact finding and searching for the truth. Unfortunately, the real world does not wait on the scientific process. Whether it’s misleading the public on the importance of masks early on in the pandemic to conserve masks for healthcare workers, or turning down the opportunity to boost individuals ahead of Delta and Omicron, proceeding with the status quo of doing nothing until evidence says otherwise ultimately has led to deaths and continued communications chaos.

Indeed, the handling of the coronavirus has been disastrous, which has led me to opine that perhaps science does not teach judgement, and indeed decision making in the face of uncertainty should be taken out of the hands of scientists, who are not familiar with the considerations involved when making decisions in the face of the unknown.

The Process of Judgement

The Bartleby column of the Economist discussed this issue in July 2020. They question whether good judgement is innate or if it can be trained, and how it can be identified among managers.

judgment is the combination of personal qualities with relevant knowledge and experience to form opinions and take decisions. Thus defined, judgment involves a process—taking in information, deciding whom and what to trust, summarising one’s personal knowledge, checking any prior beliefs or feelings, summarising the available choices and then making the decision.

At each stage, decision-makers must ask themselves questions, such as whether they have the relevant experience and expertise to make their choice, and whether the option they favour is practical.

Expertise can be useful in making judgments. But it is not the same thing. “Academics have expertise,” Sir Andrew observes. “They don’t necessarily have judgment.” People with judgment know when they are out of their depth in making a decision and typically then seek the advice of someone who has the right background and knowledge.

Judgement is Risk Management

I think we can count on scientists to find out what the facts are and to recall the facts of the situation when asked. However, in the real world, there are many questions that are not answered, where the facts are unknown, and it’s in this situation where decision making reigns supreme.

Decision making combines the facts on the ground, with considerations of the urgency of the matter, a review of what isn’t known and the consequences of getting the decision right vs. wrong. It considers past experiences and related decisions, and ultimately requires the intuition to weigh the importance of each fact against the risks.

Decision making is ultimately a risk management decision where the risks are balanced against decision and the delay to get more facts.

Leadership is Defined by Judgement

The defining characteristic of leadership, in my mind, is judgement. Leaders in government, business executives, product managers, entrepreneurs, division managers, financial traders and lawyers all make their livings on decision making. They are constantly forced to answer questions in the face of the unknown and make decisions with less than perfect answers.

That is not to say that all scientists have the luxury of fact finding without decision making. Top of mind are front line medical workers who need to constantly diagnose real patients with a less than perfect picture of the issue.

Ultimately, in my mind, the difference between a cog in the wheel worker vs. a highly paid employee is their judgement and decision making skills. Indeed the value of a liberal arts education or a MBA (as opposed to traditional STEM based topics), is how it provides a framework to incorporate disparate sources of information to force the individual to come up with a well-reasoned, well-argued opinion – which after all, is the purpose of this site.