There are times when an either/or, black or white, yes or no mindsets are useful:
- If you’re in combat and someone’s shooting at you and your friends, you either shoot back or you don’t.
- If you’re in a prospect’s office with a contract on the last day of your fiscal year, she either signs it or you go home empty-handed.
- If you’re a politician on Election Day, the voters either put you in office or they don’t.
This whole either/or thing seems ingrained in our culture. Either liberal or conservative. Either expert or peon. Either leader or follower. Either right-brained and analytical or left-brained and creative. Either can-do or defeatist. Either on board with the CEO’s plan or against it.
Aside from groupthink, either/or thinking is dysfunctional in another very harmful way: either/or thinking tries to fit a round, soft, creative peg (the human mind) into a hard, unyielding, yes-or-no hole of our own creation.
On a personal level, this either/or, all-or-nothing thinking can lead to depression: either you’re awesome or you suck, and when you realize (as we all must) that you aren’t a superhero, well, follow the logic: the only option remaining is that you’re terrible, the worst. You may as well not get out of bed, because it doesn’t matter anyway.
On an organizational level, this either/or thinking leads to much that is dysfunctional and toxic to our success, in the form of groupthink. It leads to highly creative, intelligent people checking the best part of their brains at the door each workday, as they defer blindly to the judgment of their higher-ups. It leads to those higher-ups missing vital input that could challenge their decisions in essential ways. And even when such input does battle its way to the top, either/or thinking leads C-suite leaders to discount the quality of the views they hear because they don’t respect the source (see “expert or peon,” above).
Aside from groupthink, either/or thinking is dysfunctional in another very harmful way: either/or thinking tries to fit a round, soft, creative peg (the human mind) into a hard, unyielding, yes-or-no hole of our own creation. More accurate by far is to understand that most of our first attempts – at anything! – won’t fit at all; we’ll fail. But while the depressive stops and gives up, and while the scolding authoritarian points fingers and says, “I told you so,” the eventual winner will tweak methods and try again. And, if necessary, again. And probably again. And each time, like Thomas Edison who discovered 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb before he figured out how to actually make light appear, we will learn from our mistakes and be better for it.
Here’s the thing with our tendency toward either/or thinking: most of our life is not binary. Real life is very rarely ones or zeros, yes or no, thumbs up or thumbs down. Life is an essay test, and we get extra points for answering creatively!
Reject either/or thinking, on a personal level and on an organizational one. You’re smarter than that. You’re better than that! And if your leader isn’t… hang in there. You’ll have a new leader sooner or later.
Photo by Kenneth Stewart Davies
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