What triggers binary thinking and why it’s an issue
Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling uncomfortable about making a decision or you’re anxious about something, that you seem to only have two bad options?
It’s a sign you may be getting stuck in binary thinking – either it’s A or B. Black or White. Or an unattractive option against an equally unattractive option.
This is one of the limiting effects of our brain’s tendency to narrow our thinking when we’re under pressure. It can be helpful to understand more about why this happens and what you can do about it when you find yourself stuck in binary thinking.
So why do our brains narrow in thinking when we’re under pressure? It’s important to remember that our primary instinct is to survive and so when we face anything we perceive as pressure or a threat, then to some degree, our brain, muscles, hormones and chemicals are in survival mode. You can dig into the neuroscience behind this here.
That might sound extreme for simply deciding how to address a difficult conversation with a colleague, but the fact remains that since the days of escaping attacks by sabre-tooth tigers, we still have the same fight or flight mechanisms for any perceived threat.
The discomfort and anxiety caused by the idea of having an awkward conversation with a colleague registers in our brains in a similar way to a physical threat to our safety. And so it makes some sense that during these times of pressure, our brain’s priority is not to be as creative and open as possible in thinking.
The brain’s priority is to get us out of the problem, so quick and minimal options that get us towards a decision and outcome is the focus: think fight or flight. This might translate in your difficult conversation scenario to thinking your only options are to go in and shout at the person or say nothing. Or you might decide that it’s fire them now or forever be stuck with their poor performance.
What we need is more options…
How can we break our brain’s natural reaction and find more options? This is where mindfulness comes in. We need to be consciously aware of what is happening in order to choose a different way of thinking.
So pay attention to those times when you find yourself thinking you only have two options. Think of the thought “I can either do A or B” as an alarm bell – a warning that you are in narrow thinking and it could be beneficial for you to move into more open and creative thinking.
Once you have recognised that you’ve gone into that binary thinking, you can now choose to come out of it. Here are some top tips for getting into a more creative space:
Tell yourself, or draw it out if you work well with visuals, that there are many options in between A and B.
Ask yourself, what if I could work out four other options between A and B? How might that help me? Posing this as a question rather than a factual statement engages the brain and challenges the brain to start thinking more creatively
This moves the brain to a future-focus
Focus on the outcomes – what do you want to achieve? This moves the brain to a future-focus, imagining what we want to happen, which again breaks us out of the threat response.
In the difficult conversation example, you might say that you want the outcomes to be that the person changes their behaviour and that your working relationship is still intact.
In communicating bad news, like the need for redundancies, you might say you want the outcome to be that people know what is happening and why, and that people know you are keen to help them get through this.
It is helpful to think about your outcomes in terms of what you want other people to feel, say and do. As this can be a clear starting point for you deciding what you need to feel, say and do.
Now plan out some other options. Based on the outcomes you want, what are some different options? What could you say and do? Which options feel more appropriate? Why?
Now you have moved from limited options to a clearer focus on the outcomes you desire. So you can plan your next move.
Top Tips on Managing Millennials
We probably need to start this article with some caveats and health warnings. We cannot claim that everyone born between 1980 and 2000 is the same or has the same requirements from their manager.
And just like any other group of people, the best thing you can do as a people manager is take time to build a relationship and work out together what each individual needs from you.
However there are some particular quirks to those in the latter half of this generation known as millennials: those born after around 1990, who grew up with technology at the centre of their lives and experienced 9/11 in their formative years.
There are lots of sources out there on millennials and understanding how they have developed into people that are frequently insulted in the workplace. Our favourites are Simon Sinek’s frank and entertaining version from a US perspective and this UK version from the Guardian
But this article is about how to manage millennials. Understanding their mindset and how they have come to certain ways of thinking and being is useful, but what do we do with that information when they’re in our team and we’re struggling?
There are again a lot of places to look for such guidance, but the best by far is this book where there are specific suggestions given on how to adapt your management style in order to get the best from your team (frankly whether they’re millennials or not).
Here are our highlights:
Adaptability – are you willing to adapt to the needs of others or do you find yourself (like most people do) saying about millennials: “I can’t believe they did that. I would never have done that when I was their age / in their position.
They need to get a grip / realise the world we’re in / follow my lead or get lost.” Examples often quoted are people taking long lunch breaks, leaving the office early or taking six weeks off to go travelling.
The problem here is that we always compare ourselves to others, so we say “I would never have taken a long lunch break when I was early on in my career – I never even do that now!” But just because we didn’t do it, that doesn’t mean there is a universal law saying nobody can ever take a long lunch break.
We need to challenge ourselves to meet people where they are, challenge our beliefs about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and work with each individual to agree ways of working. In practice that probably means that sometimes it’s fine for people to take long breaks as long as they get the job done.
Challenge Orientation – ah that classic phrase – “it’s not a problem, it’s a learning opportunity.” We scoff at this like it’s false, but the fact is that when we really believe something is an opportunity to learn and stretch ourselves and a challenge we look forward to, we get a lot more out of the experience.
We only need to remind ourselves of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset work to see how powerful this can be. So do you view millennials in your team as a pain, or as a new challenge for you to work through and find a way to help them thrive? Your mindset could be the greatest barrier to your success in their management.
Power – although we probably all still come across people who use their title, rank and level in the hierarchy as their power, there is no doubt that this is losing its relevance and prevalence in the workplace.
For millennials in particular, having grown up without the need for authority figures in some ways, as they can find out just as much as an expert in seconds on google, the focus is on relational power over authoritative power.
So next time you feel like saying, “I’m the boss, so just do what I say,” remember that this is likely to switch people off. Work on building trust and helping your team understand the pressures you are under, so that you can ask people to help you and all work together on solutions.
Success – finally another point on mindset. Do you believe that millennials hinder your chances of success? Or do you see that they can help you succeed – and you can help them thrive? Not surprisingly, those managers who believe the latter tend to be better managers.
What you will notice is that far from magic solutions for getting millennials to adapt to the workplace, the research shows that businesses who see millennials thriving and contributing greatly to results, have managers with a different mindset.
So, are you willing to think differently, in order to help your team thrive?