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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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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More articles on Emotions at Work:

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However perceptive we become about what can anger us, we still do get angry once in a while. Here are four steps to help you deal with your own anger.
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At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on might just help keep you untwisted.
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You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)Staying in Abilene
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
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The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

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