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."
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
for refuting an
opposing argumentFalse 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- What We Don't Know About Each Other
- We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't
know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
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- Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin,
but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can
lead to higher costs.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
- Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks
- In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide
opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog
of covert attack tactics.
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense
of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you
want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
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