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Leaders Must Think Situationally

What to do when there's no clear answer (Thinking Grey, Part 2)

Li #213 Leaders Must Think Situationally
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BINARY THINKING MEANS viewing an issue or situation as an Either-Or: Either good or bad … black or white … right or wrong … all or nothing. Thinking Grey is recognizing that Either-Or does not apply in a given case and looking for multiple possibilities.

I am not suggesting that Binary Thinking is wrong or bad, or that Thinking Grey is always right.

Those prone to Thinking Grey often need to grow in their ability to recognize when Either-Or is appropriate and to take quicker, more decisive action accordingly.

In my experience working with clients, however, I have more often encountered the hindrance of Binary Thinking: People thinking Either-Or where it does not apply.

This is the main point: We all can benefit from learning to think in both of these ways and discerning how and when to apply them.

An ancient word of wisdom

One of the biggest musical hits of the 1960s was Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn! as recorded by The Byrds. The song is still well-known and has popped up often in movies and commercials. Less known is the fact that nearly all the lyrics came from a 3000-year-old book called Ecclesiastes. It says in part:

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven;

a time to be born, a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to tear down and a time to build up,

a time to search, a time to give up as lost,

a time to be silent and a time to speak.

Thinking about those lines one day, I said to myself, “There’s a time for this and a time for that. So what? What am I supposed to do with that?” Then it hit me, and I came up with my favorite definition of wisdom: Wisdom is to know what time it is!

The writer of Ecclesiastes could have added, “There’s a time for Binary Thinking and a time for Thinking Grey.” Again, wisdom is to know what time it is.

So if you lean toward Binary Thinking, accept it as a strength … except when it’s not.

Consequences of using Binary Thinking where it does not apply

Inappropriate use of Binary Thinking is one of the most common causes of self-limitation. There are several consequences.

  • Limiting creative problem-solving

Either we borrow the money, or we go bankrupt.” Are those truly the only possible options? Believing this problem is an Either-Or means you don’t apply your creativity to search out more possibilities.

  • Discarding ideas for improvement because they don’t perfectly solve the problem

“Since I can’t carve out two hours for exercise three times a week, there’s no point in doing anything.” I hate to admit it, but I once fell into this attitude. For years I had a predictable and consistent exercise schedule. Then I moved to a new role where that pattern was impossible. For a time, I griped about not being able to exercise and wasn’t doing anything … until I realized I had fallen into this mindset. I changed to an expectation that worked within my new reality and got back to the gym.

  • An unrealistic view of human nature

A perennial bull-session question: “Do you believe people are basically good or basically bad?” Throw that question into the middle of a group, and in an instant you’ll see people taking up sides and defending their view.

Neither answer is realistic. Whichever side you take, you are set up for either cynicism or continual disappointment.

Leaving aside the debatable question of what “basically” means, I refuse to give an Either-Or answer. We all are a mixture of both. A realistic view of human nature (which is essential for any successful leader or manager) recognizes this. As the poet Carl Sandburg said, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar in the heavens, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.” That’s realistic.

  • Leaving yourself open to pressure and manipulation

Those of us who have raised teenagers have learned to see through this kind of thing: “You must hate me! Because if you really loved me you would let me go out with my friends.” Translation: “You either don't love me, or you’ll let me do what I want.”

It’s odd to see how many people are vulnerable to this kind of reasoning. Many employees in the workplace will try this angle with their manager. They’ll try to position their issue so that you are “mean” if you say no, and “nice” if you say yes. Don’t buy the Either-Or. “Nice” people are perfectly capable of saying no to a request when it is appropriate.

  • Forming opinions and judgments prematurely and closing your mind

Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That’s funny, but who says you have to choose between only two options? There are many applications of this point.

We are often presented with questions and issues implying that “yes” or “no” are the only answers (high pressure salesmen do it all the time). Feeling pressure to make a decision, and seeing only yes or no as possibilities, a Binary Thinker will give an answer without exploring what else may be possible.

What if you choose to do nothing and wait? What if you stop at the fork in the road rather than taking either one? Maybe there are other possible paths that are not as obvious.

  • Being easily swayed by the strongly-held opinions of others

This consequence flows out of the previous one. Let’s say you are in a committee meeting, and a controversy is introduced. If you are applying Binary Thinking, all you see is Either-Or. You must choose one or the other, but you are unsure which way to go. Typically, what we tend to do at this point is to go with the best argument by another person.

But what if, instead of bowing to pressure to choose Either-Or, you reserve judgment long enough to consider other possibilities? What if you say, “To me, this is a complicated issue requiring more thought. What if, after discussing it, we take some time to process further, then come back and decide?”

I have found repeatedly that reserving judgment, rather than making premature decisions or jumping to conclusions, has proven the be the wisest course of action.

  • Losing your intellectual independence and creative freedom

I placed this one at the end of the section, but I believe it to be the most important consequence of the improper application of Binary Thinking. In fact, this consequence sums up all the others. The ability to think for ourselves is one of the most fundamental principles of what it means to be human. It is also the source of human creativity, innovation, and freedom. It is why people can achieve astonishing breakthroughs in their problem-solving abilities ─ provided they do not limit themselves.

Retaining your intellectual independence is not easy or automatic, but it is a goal worth tenaciously fighting for.

A realistic view of life and work

The world doesn’t always fall into neat categories like good or bad, success or failure, broken or fixed. Leading and managing in the real world sometimes means navigating ambiguous waters toward fuzzy goals with uncertain success. I like what Andy Stanley has written (emphasis mine):

“Contrary to what you might think, uncertainty actually increases with increased leadership responsibility. The more responsibility you assume as a leader, the more uncertainty you will be expected to manage. The cost of success as a leader is greater uncertainty, not less.”

Leaders who can Think Grey when it’s called for are best positioned for success in a world of uncertainty.

There is a time for Binary Thinking, and a time for Thinking Grey. Wisdom is to know what time it is.

In the next article, I’ll offer some practical applications for learning to Think Grey. In the meantime, you will be way ahead of the game if you will face decisions by first pausing to ask, “What time is it? Is this a true Either-Or situation, or is it broader than that? Is it time for Thinking Grey?”

That self-awareness alone will help you be a better leader and decision-maker. Li


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