Seven Steps to Improve your Professional Judgment

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Professional judgment is the ability to gather data, assess a situation and make an informed, rational recommendation or conclusion. It is a data-driven, iterative and reflective process involving data collection, evaluation and action. Demonstrating professional judgment is critical for navigating office politics, influencing others and garnering coworkers’ trust and respect. These are all qualities that help you ascend the career ladder. Here is a seven-step framework to enhance your professional judgment.

Ask Questions

When my client Liana first joined her new organization, she wasn’t confident in her ability to add value because she didn’t fully understand how things worked. She remained silent and did not contribute during meetings, because she didn’t trust her own views. During a private conversation with her manager, she learned that others did not think of her as a team player.

In the beginning, everything may feel new and unfamiliar. It may seem like colleagues are speaking a language you don’t understand, or behaving in ways you can’t quite make sense of. There seems to be an unwritten way of doing things, one that you don’t have the secret code for yet. You may want everyone to think you know what you are doing and so you keep quiet even when you are unsure of how something works. It may seem like you are expected to know everything on day one. And asking questions may seem unwise, since it can reveal uncertainty, lack of knowledge or weakness. However, one of the most powerful things you can do to cut through the fog of not knowing is to ask questions.

Asking questions can be tough, it takes courage, daring, and vulnerability. Yet the simple act of asking a question helps you and those around you better understand context, direction, and desired outcomes.

Liana began to ask questions when she needed clarity. She found that it helped her reduce uncertainty, gain clarity, and build trust with team members. Liana’s behavior change helped her trust her own judgment and become confident in her assessment of situations.

Build a Board

As a professional in any field, it’s wise to curate your own personal Board of Directors (BOD). This custom BOD is a select group of people who will provide you impartial advice and feedback. 

To build your personal BOD, start by observing leaders within your organization. Choose leaders who demonstrate behavior consistent with stated organizational values. Seek out cross-functional leaders to have varied perspectives on challenges and issues. Invite leaders with excellent human skills to join your personal BOD.  Ask leaders who have technical competencies you’d like to gain to join your BOD.

Next, seek out leaders outside of your organization. These may be leaders for or with whom you previously worked. They may be within or outside of your industry or function. They may come from another country, race, or educational background. Gaining as many different perspectives as you can through a diverse and inclusive board is critical to your holistic development and growth.

Finally, seek out professionals and leaders in other fields of expertise. An executive coach, mental health therapist, religious leader, athletic trainer, yoga, dance, or music teacher, or spiritual guide may also offer unique and varied points of view to your BOD.

After consideration, Liana felt a personal BOD would be helpful to share expertise, serve as an impartial sounding board, and surface and remove blind spots. Liana realized the importance of reaching out to the BOD for guidance and insight to help her make informed, strategic recommendations.

Cultivate your Network

Relationship building may seem a bit overwhelming, particularly if you are not a ‘people person’. At its core, it involves proactively reaching out to people in your organization, in your profession and your industry. Consider why you want a particular relationship and how you can get to know the person better. For each person you want to build a mutually beneficial relationship with, consider one thing you can freely give them. When you seek to give to others first, instead of asking for what you want or need, you’ll experience the power of reciprocity in action.

Liana and I created a relationship mind map to visualize the formal and informal reporting structures within her organization. This helped her understand formal and informal cultural ways of getting work done. From this mind map, we created a strategic relationship roadmap with milestones and deadlines to identify and prioritize with whom she wanted to build relationships over time.

Deepen Expertise

Often throughout your career, you may find that tasks assigned are less challenging than you would like and don’t stretch you. However, it’s still important to do your best and produce high-quality deliverables. This standard of excellence will help others perceive you as credible and build your brand as a top performer.

Once you exceed expectations on assigned tasks and demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals, then you can explore stretch assignment opportunities, including new projects, roles or tasks which require you to learn new skills. Exposing yourself to different cultures, organizations and stretch assignments offers you a broader range of experiences to draw upon when assessing situations.  Deepening your expertise through challenging projects extends your foundational knowledge base and has an additive effect. Research shows that this cumulative knowledge then helps you further develop, enhance and refine your professional judgment which can accelerate your career.

Liana, for instance, worked hard to deliver high-quality results that helped her leaders and colleagues perceive her as credible. Then, she worked with her manager to identify several stretch assignments she wanted to pursue. We then developed an outreach strategy for her to connect with the respective managers of those stretch assignments and build relationships.

Expand Your Focus

The business world can be confusing and difficult to navigate. We tend to narrow our focus to deal with the tasks assigned. But to cultivate professional judgment, it’s very important to take a broader system and holistic view.

First, look inside your organization to understand how your work affects other functions. Let’s say that you are a Junior Analyst in the Finance function.  How does your and your team’s work impact your colleagues in other functions, such as Human Capital or Marketing, for example? To what extent is your work aligned with your company’s overall strategic vision?

Second, look outside your organization to learn about trends relevant to your industry and company. How are global situations such as COVID-19 impacting your organization? Which trends are impacting the Financial industry as a whole?

Third, seek inside yourself to gain self-awareness and understanding. What assumptions do you make about certain tasks? What processes do you use to solve a particular situation and why? Which other techniques could you use to complete your tasks?

Lastly, consider others’ viewpoints to expand your technical competencies and organizational savvy. What frameworks do your peers use to solve challenges? Why do they make these particular choices? What assumptions do they make about certain tasks? Which guidelines and best practices do your peers recommend and why?

Liana needed to better understand how her work aligned to the bigger picture. We used this four-step focus expansion approach to create a holistic roadmap to broaden her perspective. These bi-directional lenses offered her deeper insights and acumen to add to her knowledge base.

Feel the Emotions

Emotions are data that help us understand ourselves, others, and our environments. Liana’s strengths involved quantitative data analysis. She was highly analytical, yet struggled with recognizing, naming and interpreting her emotions. We worked through several somatic coaching exercises to help Liana become aware of and accept her emotions. Once, she knew what was happening to her physically in moments of stress or fear, she was able to implement strategies to calm herself down.  

Business professionals often rely on their intuition to develop conclusions about situations. Laura Huang’s research suggests that acting on their gut feel gives leaders the freedom to move forward when they might otherwise remain stuck.

Trusting your gut is a critical component of professional judgment. What is your intuition telling you? What is it trying to signal? Many leaders I work with – particularly those in the STEM professions – comment how they are programmed to ignore the emotional data signals. Pay attention to the signals – they are critical signage pointing the way forward!

Gauge the Gaps

Enhancing professional judgment requires understanding where there are gaps and what you can improve. Liana knew there was a gap, but needed additional clarity. We used a 360 behavioral interview process to help her understand her behavioral, technical, human and business acumen skill and knowledge gaps. Then, we worked on a professional development plan to help her close these gaps. As she worked through her plan, she become more confident in her own evaluation of situations.

Developing and improving professional judgment can be simple and straightforward, but not easy. It takes awareness, practice, and courage to build your professional judgment muscle. Use these seven steps to improve your professional judgment competency.

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