The quiet power of being discerning

The quiet power of being discerning

Being discerning means cultivating the ability to judge wisely. It’s an important skill for leaders and managers to master as it means knowing what to leave out, as well as a capacity to balance tensions and competing priorities.

Key takeaways

  • When a manager inserts themselves into a situation unnecessarily, it creates friction and draws attention away from key tasks.
  • Being discerning means recognising when the impulse to act comes from a need to be at the centre of the story.
  • Having the ability to flexibly balance different tensions and priorities.
  • Reflection, mentorship and good judgement are all ways to develop your ability to discern.

A key skill to develop as a manager is the ability to discern between meaningful action and activity for its own sake. Being discerning is essential in the workplace for a number of reasons.

For a start, whenever we insert ourselves into a process, we add a layer of complexity which resonates up and down the chain of decisions. Sometimes, it’s necessary for managers to do this, but other times, getting involved just creates additional friction and pulls their attention away from core activities. A recent McKinsey study suggested that time wasted on ineffective decision making processes, including unnecessary manager interactions, might waste up to 500,000 days a year at a typical large company. 

Meanwhile, being discerning helps managers navigate the constant swirl of priorities and demands. It’s all too easy to be pulled in multiple directions, so the ability to discern between what’s really important and what’s not will allow them to keep themselves and the people they manage on track.

What it means to be discerning

Effective discernment comes from being aware when we unnecessarily injecting own perspective, emotions and needs into a situation – recognising when the impulse to act comes from a need to be at the centre of the story, or to show authority.

This balancing of tensions and priorities is an essential part of being an effective manager and leader. The traditional managerial, command and control approach are giving way to distributed leadership models, and it can feel like there’s an unresolvable tension between these old and new ways. As the Harvard Business Review points out, going too far in one direction or another can lead to negative outcomes. 

What managers need to do is balance different tensions flexibly, based on what’s needed in any given situation. Being discerning is critical to successfully navigating this balance and producing the best outcomes for both manager and team.

Being discerning – some examples

There are countless instances in management where being discerning can make a significant difference to effectiveness. 

For example, imagine a team member is having a bad day. As a manager, being discerning means instead of jumping on what this person has said or deciding they need improvement, observe and take a longer view. Everyone has a bad day from time to time, and in the rush of daily operations, it’s all too easy to mistake this for a pattern of behaviour. Mistaking momentary lapses for sustained poor performance can have significant negative effects on team productivity and mental health. Conversely, it indeed may be a bigger issue, and, after some discernment, a difficult conversation may be needed.

Another example is for managers to be able to discern between actual information and the noise some people make in deflecting, dismissing, or denying, to draw attention away from what they have or haven’t done. Without the ability to discern, managers can end up being pulled into false agendas, derailing attempts to get to the key points at issue. Being discerning in these situations can help managers to stay focused and achieve what they set out to do. 

And finally, it’s important to have the ability to discern between what’s essential, what’s important, and what’s unnecessary. While we may relish the idea of limitless options, the reality can be paralysing. We can end up deferring to the priorities of others, or worse, running down rabbit holes after new and shiny ideas, rather than making solid progress on worthy but less spectacular objectives. This can create a hamster wheel effect, where managers pull the team in different directions from moment to moment. Being discerning can cut through the noise of overwhelming choice, allowing us to calmly trace the path ahead. 

How to build your ability to discern

While being discerning is something we build up over time, there are some shortcuts we can take to accelerate our development in this direction:

  1. Make time and space to reflect. One of our best trainers is the catalogue of our past actions. By reflecting on these in a constructive way, we can improve our future ability to discern. 
  2. Find a mentor. It’s important to remember that we’re all a work in progress, and finding someone with real experience and ability who can lead by example and hold us to account can be extremely valuable to make sense of challenging situations as they play out.  
  3. Exercise judgement. Just like working a muscle, exercising the ability to judge wisely will improve over time. We should practice, as often as possible, the process of discerning what we should do and what we should avoid, bearing in mind that sometimes the better choice might be to do nothing at all. 

Being discerning allows a manager to see past the noise and effectively manage a team in a way that’s best for the people they are responsible for, their organisation and themselves. 

Andrea has spent over 25 years working with organisations, leaders and employees at every stage of a business and career life cycle. She has created positive impact for organisations through her work with executives, leadership teams, and diverse functional teams within the arts, education, government and media organisations as examples. With over 15 years experience within career development and coaching, her direct knowledge of individuals fears and challenges and insights across a broad spectrum of sectors and organisations, creates a unique understanding of what employees need to thrive.