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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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Capitol Hill at nightThe Slippery Slope That Isn't
"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.
Hula HoopingStay in Your Own Hula Hoop
Do you tend to commit to too many tasks? Are you one who spends too much energy meeting the needs of others — so much that your own needs go unmet? Here's how a hula-hoop can help.
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In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herdBelieve It or Else
When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
A ray of light passing through and reflected from a prismWhen Somebody Throws a Nutty
To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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