Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 26;   June 26, 2002: Think in Living Color

Think in Living Color

by

Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy, you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.

Jared could see it coming, as Curt, the Director of Customer Service, pressed on: "With such a dramatic increase in the number of dissatisfied customers, we have to create a special team of systems experts temporarily attached to Customer Service to address the accumulating issues in the field. Here's the list of people we need."

A sunset

Sunset. Taking time to see all the colors around you — to really take them in — is a good way to practice seeing the nuances of situations.

Jared felt angry. A typical power move — Curt wanted to draft Jared's best people. If that actually happened, many of his systems experts would probably leave the company.

When you notice you're angry, put on your detective hat. You might find that something is threatening your self-esteem. When Jared put on his detective hat, he realized that he was trapped in a false dichotomy — an error of reasoning in which we fail to notice the full range of available options.

False dichotomy, or "black-and-white thinking," sees the world in stark terms, in which the only solution to a problem is an extreme and over-simplified path that might actually be worse than the place we left.

False dichotomies can be
either honest errors
of reasoning, or
deliberate devices
for refuting an
opposing argument
False dichotomies appear not only as honest errors of reasoning, but also as deliberate devices for refuting an opposing argument. For example, the slogan "You're either part of the solution, or part of the problem," is a false dichotomy. "The" solution is typically "my" solution, and no other positions are helpful.

Back in control, Jared gave a reasoned response. He wondered if there weren't other ways to solve the problem: by asking for volunteers, or offering an enticing compensation package, or even training Customer Service staff. At first, Curt fended off these ideas, but when others in the meeting showed interest, they delegated a team of three to study the options and recommend an approach. By recognizing a false dichotomy, Jared was able to stay calm and offer alternatives.

We adopt extreme solutions when we can't see — or won't see — the full range of options before us. Here are some other examples of black-and-white or false dichotomy thinking:

  • Business is down — we have to cut expenses.
  • If we don't measure it, it'll never happen.
  • If we can't measure it, it's not a goal.
  • Zero tolerance
  • Zero defects
  • If you don't make this date, the company will sink.
  • All they care about is their bonuses.
  • We have to make sacrifices if we want <whatever>.

Very little in engineering, marketing, or management — or in Life — is so simple that there can be only one or two approaches. When people present their favored approach as the only alternative, be on guard for "black-and-white" thinking. And if you can, show them how to think in living color. Go to top Top  Next issue: Your Wisdom Box  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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See also Emotions at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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