Conversations will almost always fail when they involve what Michael Fullan refers to as judgmentalism.  Fullan writes, “One of the ways not to develop capacity is through criticism, punitive consequences, or what I more comprehensively call judgementalism. Judgmentalism is not just seeing something as unacceptable or ineffective. It is that, but it is particularly harmful when it is accompanied by pejorative stigma, if you will excuse the redundancy” (Fullan, 2008).  Michael Fullan goes on to say:

Nonjudgementalism is a secret of change because it is so very heavily nuanced. You have to hold a strong moral position without succumbing to moral superiority as your sole change strategy. As Miller puts it, “When we strive for some great good or oppose some great evil, it is extremely difficult not to spill out some of the goodness onto ourselves and the evil onto our opponents, creating a deep personal moral gulf. It is very difficult, in other words, professing or striving for something righteous, to avoid self-righteousness and moral condemnation” (Fullan, 2008,pgs. 59 & 60).

When observers offer judgmental comments about a teacher’s competence (How could you allow them to waste so much time?) such judgmental comments can damage morale, damage relationships, and decrease people’s openness to collaboration.  In other words, if I feel judged, I’m less likely to be vulnerable and open during a conversation, and if I’m not open and vulnerable, I likely won’t learn a lot.

Stanford researcher Liz Wiseman’s studies on multipliers and diminishers provide a framework for understanding why moralistically judgmental comments inhibit change.  When observers communicate moralistic judgment those being judged often feel diminished, experiencing less self-efficacy, less energy for improvement.  On the other hand, when coaching conversations are affirming and validating those being affirmed often feel empowered, experience higher self-efficacy, and more energy for improvement.

What matters here is that the conversations are grounded in data and they are authentic.  A rose-colored glasses approach to data won’t lead to change. We can’t improve on reality by avoiding it. But when observers share reality, valid data, and communicate their belief in others, real change can happen.