Query for judgment

The top thing I’ve learned about management is a rule I call “query for judgment.”

Simply put, it’s this: by default, always ask your reports for their judgment before giving your own.  Ask their proposals on how to solve a problem.  Ask their ideas for products or features.  Ask their opinion on prioritization.  Ask their thoughts on risks.

Compare these approaches:

  • “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly.  We need to completely change the messaging on the landing page—focus on the cost savings instead of the new features. Make that your top priority.”
  • “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly.  I think we need to make major changes on the landing page.  What changes should we make?”
  • “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly.  How can we fix it?”
  • “Team, the new ad campaign is converting at 0.2%.  How does that compare to our expectations? … OK, well, how can we fix it?”
  • “Hey, how’s the new ad campaign doing? … Oh. How does that compare to our expectations? … I agree. How can we fix it? … Change the landing page? That makes sense, what should we change?  …  That sounds good.  Where does this fall on your priority list?  …  Great, sync up with me tomorrow and let me know how it’s going.”

The top advantages of this, as opposed to giving your thoughts first:

  • You learn about your reports. You learn how good their judgment is, how creative they are, how savvy.  You learn what they’re good at and what they’re not.  You learn what kinds of issues they’re sensitive to.  One of your top jobs as a manager is to know your reports; constantly sampling their judgment is a way to learn about them.
  • You show your respect for them. You, the boss, are asking them what to do.  You’re showing that you believe they can operate at a higher level and expect them to do so.
  • They get appreciation for good judgment. If you agree and have nothing to add, all you have to say is “I agree, go for it.”  As an employee, hearing that feels great!  Or if you think they’re 90% right, you only have to make a minor course correction.
  • They might even have a better idea than you. If you’ve hired high-judgment people, this happens sometimes.  But if you always tell your idea first, you might never find out.  They might not be the type to speak up, or they might be afraid of contradicting you, or they might just never get their creative engine going without that spark.
  • Conversely, they get clear feedback when they’re wrong. If an employee has an awful idea or bad judgment, they’ll find out, because you’ll hear that idea and explain why it’s wrong.  The feedback loop you enable when you query for judgment works both ways, positive and negative.
  • If you disagree with them, you know how far you need to bring them, and in what ways.  You might expect to spend your time convincing your engineers that they need to double the performance of your web site, when what you’re actually going to have to spend your time on is explaining why the site navigation needs an overhaul.  You won’t know until you hear their thoughts.
  • Regardless, they always feel heard. They might complain about your judgment, but they can never claim that they don’t get a chance to voice their own.
  • You become a clock builder, not a time teller (in the terminology of Built to Last). You aren’t just getting things done, you’re investing in your people and building bench strength.  You’re showing that you expect them to be autonomous, and you’re teaching them that you aren’t going to supply all the answers.

Towards the end of my time at Amazon, I was trying to wean my engineers off of my help.  I started having one-on-ones with them that went like this: “So, how’s your project going? … OK, how do you feel about that progress? … OK. What do you think are the next steps? … Sounds good. Which of those is most important? … I agree. What are the top risks this is facing right now? … Good, so, what can we do about them? … Great, thanks.”  I gave no input except to ask the right questions; I let them come up with all the answers.

“Query for judgment” is related to “seek first to understand” (from Seven Habits), but it’s doubly important for managers, especially since it doesn’t come naturally.  As a manager, you probably got your role by having high judgment, so you’re used to having the best ideas.  As a leader, you may feel that you’re supposed to have the best ideas and that your role is to give them to people.  But for all the reasons above, you should query for judgment first.


  1. Jason, great post. I totally agree. In my work with leaders, I stress this kind of collaborative, open leadership style. You nailed it in your last paragraph – it’s often about leaders having to let go of a skill that got them to a leadership role (judgment and ability to make decisions) in favor of a new skill (being inquisitive and welcoming input). This is written about by executive coaches Marshall Goldsmith (What Got You Here Won’t Get You There) and Scott Eblin (The Next Level). Especially now, with the so-called multi-generational workforce, we have increasingly changing expectations of what leadership should be like. You have provided many wise suggestions that can help managers avoid many pitfalls.

  2. Matt Gerber says:

    Good post, Jason. It’s really important for a manager to convey an earnest need to hear what his reports have to say, for purposes of discussion, argument, confirmation, et al. If a manager goes through the motions of getting this feedback but had already made up his mind (and never really intended to heed what his reports had to say), then the reports could feel cheated, i.e. “Why did you ask us in the first place?”. Also, I think it’s important for the manager to communicate at some point the reasons for his final decision if he does not disclose them while receiving feedback.

  3. Bill Brown says:

    I would largely agree except that I’ve worked under someone who always did exactly what you describe and always took my suggestions. At first, I got the feelings of respect that you suggest but over time I began to suspect that he was letting me do his thinking for him.

    I guess what I’m saying is that leadership can be what you describe but it can also be firm, decisive action. Too much of the former and you come off as wishy-washy, too much of the latter and you’re a general in the army. The best managers in my experience are able to pick the tack that’s appropriate most often.

  4. Jason says:

    Bill, I agree. I was coming from the context that Halelly described: a confident, high-judgment individual who has to learn new skills to succeed as a manager and a leader.

    Jeff Immelt (CEO of GE) said this in a 2007 NYT interview: “When you run General Electric, there are 7 to 12 times a year when you have to say, ‘you’re doing it my way.’ If you do it 18 times, the good people will leave. If you do it 3 times, the company falls apart. You want a team of leaders who are self-confident. But in the end it is not a democracy. There has to be clarity about decisions.” http://select.nytimes.com/2007/06/09/business/09nocera.html?pagewanted=all

    Matt, agree with your points, too. Thanks all for the discussion.

  5. Paul Blair says:

    Nice post. One thing that I think is a precondition for this kind of approach is that reports feel safe in communicating their views. I’m currently reading *Crucial Conversations,* which has been recommended to me by several people as a valuable book on this subject. So far it looks pretty good.

  6. […] Jason Crawford’s recent post on a management principle he calls “Query for Judgment” reminded me of those fascinating parallels between parenting and management.  His rule is, […]

  7. mikedartt says:

    Good stuff, Jason. I'd add that this approach provides another benefit:

    * You can fix and prevent miscommunications.

    In a relatively simple example where someone's not performing to expectations, this approach is a much better way to discover, for example, that the person wasn't fully aware of the expectations, or that his understanding of them was different than yours. It's also one of the few ways to find out that *you've* made a mistake–perhaps this misunderstanding stemmed from poor communication on your part. And so forth.

    I find querying for judgment extremely useful in non-business relationships as well: the “being heard” and “showing respect” aspects go a long way toward keeping relationships healthy, and knowing the “why” of an error is crucial to effectively addressing it. In fact, I figured this principle out when debating philosophy in college, where I often found that other people's interpretations of philosophers' ideas were vastly different than mine, so it was all but useless to e.g. break down Kant's ideas versus addressing what *they* thought were Kant's ideas.

    I want to second Matt's last point as well. Since subordinates are often ignorant of the process leading to various decisions/metrics/expectations, it's crucially important to give a “why” whenever possible to minimize the risk of seeming arbitrary and autocratic. I've seen this lack of knowledge underlie the majority of grievances and complaint sessions.

    Finally, thanks for contrasting this with the approach of “giving” ideas to people. It's a timely reminder, as I'm having to train two new salespeople and it's tempting to just deluge them with tips and information, while I'd expect querying to yield better results. (Though it would be easier to avoid the temptation to dump info if the company allowed for overlap in scheduling instead of training having to come out of my personal time….)

  8. […] managers focus on communicating problems.  When they have alignment on problems, they query for judgment about the solutions.  They just point out that the website is slow, and they ask their reports how […]

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