It’s always easier to judge the past than the present.
The problem is we tend to judge people by looking backwards without considering how things looked from their vantage point at the time.
It’s easy for us to say that investing in a buggy whip company is a terrible idea. But if the year is 1901, and they’re only 600 of those new-fangled horseless carriages on the road, buggy whips seem like a safer bet.
We like to think that if we went back in time, we would be the ones who would know “that Internet thing” is not a fad, smoking does not calm pregnant women down, TV dinners are terrible for you, and slavery is wrong.
But statistics suggest that if you put us back in time, the majority of us would go along with, well, the majority.
We’re always going to judge people. It’s part of human nature.
But here’s a simple suggestion that will make you kinder, nicer and smarter about it: If you’re judging someone, be it your boss, parent, or our founding fathers — consider the context of the times.
For example, a 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show called “Opie and the Spoiled Kid” ends with wise, kind Sheriff Andy telling the father of the spoiled kid, “There’s a nice woodshed out back.” As the father escorts his kid out for the obvious spanking, Sheriff Andy and Opie smile knowingly at each other, the music plays and we know that all is right in Mayberry.
Is it any wonder that most parents of the time did the exact same thing?
Giving a kid a whippin’ in a woodshed was nice compared to how children were treated 100 years earlier. Had I been born in 1863 my parents would have probably sent me to work in a sweatshop before my 12th birthday.
Here’s a reframe for three more past events that people tend to judge through the lens of today.
1. Mistakes made early in a marriage
They were young and so were you. It’s highly probable that their lack of experience with life prompted them to behave less than ideally. Given your own lack of life experience (and the absence of Oprah and Dr. Phil) is it possible that you responded in an equally uninformed way? Let it go.
2. Intimidating management practices
It used to be standard practice for bosses to shout orders at people. With hierarchical organizational structures and almost no understanding of basic psychology, people did what seemed the most efficient — they demanded. Is it any wonder bosses trained in that environment haven’t mastered the touchy feely skill of collaboration? Old school practices weren’t rooted in evil, just lack of understanding.
3. Our forefathers owning slaves
Is it morally reprehensible? Of course. But here’s how I like to think about it. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal” he might have only meant white men. But his idea paved the way for other people to think that they might be equal too. Said another way, if Jefferson hadn’t advanced the world’s thinking the way he did, my great grandmother wouldn’t have marched with Susan B. Anthony, and my daughters and I wouldn’t have the life we do.
Like I tell my kids, one dysfunction per generation.
Do better than the people who came before you and you’re advancing the human race.
Lisa Earle McLeod helps organizations win the hearts and minds of customers and employees. She is the author of three books included the best-seller, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders.
She is an international keynote speaker and consultant who has been seen on The Today show and featured in Forbes, Fortune, CEO Read and The Wall Street Journal. You can reach her at www.LisaEarleMcLeod.com.