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Challenge Binary Thinking for Better Results

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

What do these phrases have in common:

  • Take the big bang approach

  • Go cold turkey

  • Give it all or nothing

  • It’s right there in black and white

  • Just do it

If you said they refer to binary thinking, you’re right! If not, stick with me here.

These phrases represent the “either/or” trap. This means when we are presented with doing something different like rolling out new processes at work, stopping a pesky behavior like biting our nails, or pursuing a new career, we fall into thinking there are only two options, do it or don’t do it. This is binary thinking.

It shows up elsewhere too like in conflict (“I’m right/you’re wrong”) or we hear it from command and control leaders who say things like “either you’re with me or against me.”

The problem is binary thinking holds us back from seeing a broader picture of possibility and we lose out on the innovation and creativity that lie between the “either” and the “or”.

What’s more is binary thinking is often ineffective. When was the last time quitting a bad habit cold turkey, arguing “I’m right and you’re wrong”, or forcing a management decision through an unwilling team ever worked?

But seeking other perspectives, developing multiple options, and testing out new approaches takes more time, and we naturally do what requires the least amount of effort. Moreover, for many, status quo bias kicks in, which is to “…prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing or by sticking with a decision made previously.” This is recipe for inaction.

There’s no question, binary thinking is easier. It’s just not better.

We all fall into binary thinking occasionally. Challenge yourself and others to bust out of it with these three strategies.

Think in Terms of Probability

In a recent conversation with a colleague, we discussed his desire to compete for a leadership role on a high-profile project. Due to the encouragement from his boss and other executive recommendations, he felt confident he would be selected if he applied. But he feared failure.

He said,

“What if I step into this role and bomb? I’ll be humiliated.”

I asked,

What are the odds of that happening? How many times have you taken on a challenge and failed?”

He paused and said,

“I haven’t. I can’t think of a time when I signed up for a new challenge and failed. There have been hard times, when I thought I might, but I just worked harder and got there.”

This colleague was not only stuck in binary thinking, apply for the job or don’t, but he also got stuck in thinking about extreme or unlikely outcomes.

Nathan Furr, author of The Upside of Uncertainty, studies people who excel in the face of uncertainty. When discussing what happens when we are faced with uncertainty, he writes “…we often get stuck imagining extreme either/or outcomes.” This inhibits our ability to take action. Instead, Furr advises to think “…in terms of probabilities, not binary outcomes.” (Harvard Business Review)

The next time the fear of failure stops you from taking a risk, pursuing new ideas, or innovating, focus on probable or the most likely outcomes, not worst-case scenarios.

Pilot or Test Out New Ideas

The “big bang” rollout is one that I often advise leaders and teams to avoid. This is to institute some sort of big change (such as new software, performance expectations, or policy) and implement it to every impacted party all at once. Again, it’s a binary thinking trap of going all or nothing. Many teams desire this approach because it’s faster.

The problem is that we all naturally resist change that isn’t our own idea and change resistance is the most likely culprit for initiatives failing.

Instead, pilot or test new ideas. If it’s a new software application, ensure that a good percentage of end-users test the system and give feedback so that errors and bugs can be corrected before rollout. The same goes for new processes and policies. Select a subset of people to perform under those expectations or execute the new policies and get their input. Better yet, leverage these groups to build buy-in with others. This greases the proverbial change wheels to make the rollout go smoother.

Focus on Options and Other Perspectives

When leaders and teams disagree, they often get stuck debating two options, do this or do that. It happens the same with how we interpret the behavior of others. We think in terms of absolutes and say things like “they’re unreasonable” or “they always do that.” Again, more binary thinking.

Focusing on options and other perspectives is not just a better path forward but it also reduces the emotions that are sparked when we feel someone is behaving badly toward us. It’s the same as giving benefit of the doubt.

The next time you’re in disagreement, debating between A & B, hit pause and explore C, D, and E. It’s likely a better option will emerge. And the same goes for interacting with that person who rubs you the wrong way. Instead of using an absolute label, ask yourself “What else could be true here? What other factors could be at play?” Notice what happens to your emotions and beliefs when you give that person a little grace.

The point here is not to rid ourselves of binary thinking. We can’t. It’s a natural process our brains take to make decisions. Instead, notice when it’s created a trap and we’ve stalled out because of it. If that’s the case, then it’s time to think in terms of probability, test out the idea, or focus on options and perspectives.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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