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  • Writer's pictureMax Linkoff

Arming Yourself with Self-Awareness in the Workplace

Updated: Sep 6, 2018

How to coach yourself in the workplace and understand the impact of the internal questions that we ask ourselves.

The dreaded “come to my office to chat when you can” e-mail.

Anxiety fills your stomach.

That flash of body heat rises up your spine.

You did something wrong, or did you? Paranoia sets in.

You wrack your brain imagining all of the transgressions you may have committed.

“Hey Jon – what’s going on?” I asked in my upbeat tone, trying to sway a more positive mood for the conversation in case the inevitable happened.

“Hey Max. Close the door if you can.” Jon said


My stomach started churning, a closed door was a death sentence.

“Max I’d like to talk about your performance.” Jon said.

I couldn’t tell you what else Jon said during that meeting, except for his last statement. By this point, my heart was pounding, and I was zoned in on the fact that I might be getting rolled off (consulting term for kicked off) of my project.

This couldn’t be happening, I thought to myself. My first month of my consulting career and I’m about to get rolled off my project and maybe even get fired from Deloitte.

Then the bullet hit. “You’re not performing at a high enough level.” Jon told me.

What ensued from there was pure panic mode; a downward spiral of thoughts and questions passing through my head:

“I was failing in my job.”

“Do I even have the skills to be a consultant?”

“Why did this manager put me in a coding role – he knew I wasn’t a coder in college!”

“I’m going to get fired from Deloitte.”

“I’m a failure.”

Merilee Adams would define this as being in “Judger” mode. In her book titled “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life”, Merilee describes someone in Judger mode as being closed minded, win-lose oriented, self-blaming, and with an overall mentality that often leaves your mind in a state of negativity. In this mode of thinking, defensive and critical thinking can become pervasive. Your ability to think rationally and problem-solve your way out of an adverse situation becomes nearly impossible.

Think back to the last time you failed. Perhaps something didn’t go your way, or you faced some other barrier that interfered with a desired outcome. What thoughts went through your mind? What questions did you ask yourself?

Did you have self-doubt? Did you ask yourself if you were a failure and question your ability? Did you blame a colleague or friend for the outcome? Did you ask yourself “why bother?” when dealing with that person?

If you had some or a variation of those thoughts and questions, that’s what it’s like to get in a Judger mode. Failure to break away from this space will land you in a “Judger Pit”. A Judger Pit is a closed-minded rabbit hole where we focus on problems, internalize situations, re-live past moments in our head, and ask ourselves continuous negative questions that send our mindset deeper and deeper into aggravation. It’s where I landed myself after my conversation with Jon, spiraling into a vicious cycle of closed minded and self-damaging thoughts.

When we give voice to our negative, internal dialogue, it becomes clear how susceptible we are to getting in our own way of success. In my case, as soon as I heard Jon’s feedback, the thoughts and questions that I asked myself only enhanced my discouragement, which limited my ability to view the situation from a different lens.

So how could I have viewed this situation differently and what’s the opposite of Judger mode anyway? How does this arm me with self awareness in the workplace again?

We’re getting there.

For every situation where you get into a Judger mode, there is equal opportunity to get into a “Learner” mode too. Merilee Adams describes a Learner mode as being open minded, promoting progress and possibilities, focusing on discovery, understanding, and solutions, and facilitating situational progress by expanding your options. It’s the antithesis to being a Judger and can work wonders when applied correctly to your day to day conversations, working sessions at your job, and how you approach adversity in both work and life.

How do you practice this so-called Learner mindset and how can it be applied to your job? Let’s revisit the conversation with my old manager Jon as a practical example. It should be obvious that Jon’s feedback was hard for me to hear. I immediately created a story in my head about failure and my ability to be successful as a consultant.

Since being in Learner mode is about creating win-win and open-minded possibilities, here are some Learner questions that I could have asked myself:

- What can I learn from the situation?

- What are the best step’s moving forward?

- What’s possible?

- What do I value about myself?

What could I have learned from the situation? That a more technical role takes a real learning commitment and to set expectations moving forward for any role I took on – whether it be something completely brand new or something I felt some confidence around.

What’s possible? That taking on a more technical role was a new challenge and would require some brainstorming about how to be successful in the job moving forward. Also that continuing in this role would take way more effort.

What do I value about myself? That I was not going to let one perceived “failure” of a situation dictate what my success would look like moving forward. Getting knocked down would only enable me to get up quicker and stronger.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. The questions that I could have asked myself if I was in more of a Learner mindset would have produced a drastically different mental outcome. One that would have prevented me from ending up in the “Judger Pit” and one that could have led to opportunities focused on progress, understanding, possibilities, learning, and solutions for how to move forward.

Shortly after this had happened, Jon offered me the opportunity to take on a project management role within the same team. I gladly accepted and business as usual continued with my working life.

Reflecting on that conversation, it wasn’t nearly as drastic or dramatic as I had processed in my head. Moreover, that memory was a powerful lesson about self-awareness and how my own thoughts and internal questions had created a self-damaging context and landed me in a Judger Pit. This mentality had made me closed-minded and limited my ability to move forward while facing adversity.

Learner and Judger in the Workplace

What I’ve ultimately learned during my journey in becoming a coach is how to coach myself. An invaluable foundation for that comes from the awareness of recognizing when I start to get into a Judger mode and the negative impacts it has on my thought process and my actions. Even more so, it’s an awareness of how I can be a Learner or at least try to be a Learner, in all situations.

Let’s get something clear. To be a Judger is to be human. That little voice inside of our heads will always drive preconceived notions, cause you to overthink situations, and get you to question yourself and decisions when the going gets tough. This extends to the workplace too, where feelings of negativity, self-doubt, and being in Judger mode are inevitable. Presentations don’t go well, a manager gives you feedback you don’t want to hear, a teammate throws you under the bus, your boss assigns you a last minute project when your day is already jam packed – there are a myriad of things to be on the lookout for that could start to stray you into a Judger Mode and eventual Judger Pit.

Recognizing these situations, how you handle them, and more specifically, the questions that you ask yourself as they unfold, will be the key to arming yourself with self-awareness moving forward.

After reading this article, I challenge you to spend the rest of your day thinking about and writing down some of your thoughts and questions that you ask yourself throughout the day, especially when more frustrating scenarios unfold.

Here are some other tips for improving your self-awareness for Judger versus Learner mindsets.

1. Identify when you’re in a Judger mode

While in the moment this may take more practice, try to recognize when you start to ask yourself the following questions or a variation of these questions:

- What’s wrong with me?

- What’s wrong with him/her?

- Whose fault is it?

- How can I prove I’m right?

The more you’re able to recognize when these thoughts happen, the more awareness you’ll start to gain for how you can change the context of your actions and thoughts.

2. Ask yourself “Switcher” questions

Merilee describes Switcher questions as “rescue”, “turn-around”, or “course correction” questions that can help you shift from a Judger to a Learner mindset. They essentially give you and your mind the opportunity to change course with what and how you’re thinking about a situation. Once you’ve identified that you’re in a Judger mindset, use a variation of these Switcher questions:

- Am I in Judger? *(I can’t emphasize enough how important this question is for driving awareness to a Judger mindset)

- What are the facts?

- How else can I think about this?

- What assumptions am I making?

- What is the other person thinking, feeling, and wanting?

Pick one or two of these questions, write them down on a piece of paper, and keep them in your planner or post them on a sticky note on your laptop. The more consistent you are in identifying when you’re in a Judger mode with Switcher questions, the more your self-awareness for handling these situations will improve. My go-to Switcher questions are the first two listed above: “am I in Judger?” and “what are the facts?”. They have done wonders for stopping myself when I stray off the Learner path.

During my initial feedback session with Jon, I could have stopped my Judger mindset in its tracks had I of asked myself the “what are the facts?” Switcher question. Instead of creating a story about failure, asking myself “what are the facts?” could have helped me to recognize that only one thing had happened. I had received feedback about not performing at the level expected for my coding role. Nothing about getting rolled off my project, failing at my job, or getting fired.

3. Get back on track by coaching yourself with Learner questions

Once you’re able to able to dig yourself out a Judger mindset with Switcher questions, the next step is to coach yourself with a series of Learner questions that can quickly drive a more open-minded and possibility driven outcome. These include:

- What do I value about myself?

- What can I learn? What’s useful?

- What is he/she thinking, feeling, and wanting? (for situations where you’re aggravated with a teammate)

- What are the best steps forward?

- What’s possible?

Similar to Switcher questions, it’s best to keep Learner question in a visual place so you can get into the habit of using them. Even if you’re not in a Judger mode, keep these questions handy for your next meeting, feedback session, or group collaboration. Recognizing that you have the ability to create win-win outcomes that can empower yourself and teammates for success will be a powerful tool.

As your self-reflection increases, it may become apparent how often your thoughts and questions impact your decisions. Remember, no matter how deep of a Judger Pit you may find yourself in, it’s never too late to climb up the mountain and into a Learner mindset. Follow these three steps to arm yourself with awareness in the workplace. They’re invaluable for changing your mindset and how you react to life and work situations going forward.

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