A world painted only in black and white is a hard place to live or work

St. Michael and the Devil

In our time-starved, action-obsessed approach to work and life, we easily drop into the habit of seeing every choice or decision in terms of simple opposites: good versus bad, right versus wrong, success versus failure, winners versus losers. Every choice must be one or the other, with no options in between. Macho management thinking is full of such false dichotomies.

This makes for a tense and uncomfortable workplace, as well as a warped view of reality. Worse still, it produces that habitual “us versus them” mentality, which destroys relationships, undermines co-operation, and slowly renders us paranoid.

A world of self-induced paranoia

The urge is strong today to reduce everything to simple, “A versus B” choices. Essays and self-expression are replaced in schools by multiple-choice questions. Forms come full of boxes to check and sentences to be “crossed out where not applicable.” What we wish to say is reduced to choices between what others have already decided is appropriate (or acceptable).

Such an attitude makes life less complicated — no subtleties to produce those annoying and confusing shades of gray — yet destroys it too; for in a polarized world, those who are not for you must be against you. There are only friends or enemies, allies or “evil empires.” What you choose to believe in, and the actions you embrace as “good,” must not — cannot — be questioned or faulted. There are no neutrals, no possibility that you — yes, you — may be mistaken. Those who choose another way are, by simple definition, wrong — too wrong even to contemplate what might be learned from them.

In the name of profit, speed, and efficiency, we tear up centuries of human thought. In the pursuit of “getting things done,” we lay aside our capacity for wonder and our curiosity for other ways.

The workplace as melodrama

Encouraged by the media, who love simple oppositions and melodramatic confrontations (witness The Apprentice), we demonize “the opposition” or “our competitors” and praise ourselves, “the good guys,” with thoughtless extravagance.

In a bad novel, every circumstance becomes a life or death struggle, without a balance or subtlety. In a similar way, many leaders today assume every decision is important, simply because polarized thinking makes each appear so stark: winning or losing, support or opposition, love or hate, eager agreement or hostile condemnation, blind loyalty or base treachery.

And so, like ham actors, leaders “chew the scenery” of their workplaces in emotional paroxysms over the smallest setback, or fly into extravagant joyousness at the least triumph. When winning is all that matters, losing becomes an unthinkable horror. No space is left to honor those who have done their best, yet still fallen a little way short. They are lumped together with all the others in the simple category of “failure.”

Choosing to stay blind to our folly

As we dwell lovingly on the defects in “the other guys,” treating them as stereotypes at best (or downright stupid, evil, or dishonest at worst), we set ourselves free from the need to reconsider our own assumptions. There may be equal or even greater problems in the “right way” that we have chosen, as there are in the “wrong way” that they follow, but we will never see them — until it is too late. Our simplistic viewpoint cannot stay in place and allow this to happen.

Why do so many corporations blunder into crazy ventures, then cling to them in defiance of sense? Why do leaders make it a test of loyalty for their subordinates to applaud every action, no matter how ill-advised? Why do people make truly bad career choices, then stick with them for years?

The answer is as sad as it too is simple: because there are, in their self-constricted minds, no acceptable alternatives. Because there are only two ways: what they have chosen and what has therefore to be, by definition, undeniably worse.

Getting back to reality

The reality of this world is that all extremes are uncommon to the point of invisibility. They aren’t just scarce; the more extreme they are — absolute good versus absolute evil, unquestionably right versus undeniably wrong — the more likely that they exist only in theory, if at all. Daily life plays out somewhere in the middle, between whatever extremes you care to name. This world, whether we like it or not, is a world of countless overlapping options and choices. In place of the black and white simplicities we try to impose upon it, there are nothing but the subtlest shades of gray.

How to kick the habit of over-simplified thinking

  1. Slow down and recognize with Oscar Wilde that truth is “never pure and rarely simple.” Take your time to unravel at least some of its complexities. Subtlety and ambiguity are the first casualties of haste and short-termism.
  2. Be endlessly wary of convenient simplifications and false certainties. There are many people happy to tell you that they know the “one, right answer.” Why shouldn’t you believe them? Because no such answer exists. They are deluding themselves — and will delude you too, if you let them.
  3. Question, question, and question some more. Questions aren’t dangerous, answers are.
  4. If you are presented with an “A or B” choice, don’t take it, if at all possible. Synthesize these extremes to see the options that lie between them. Human creativity arises from taking things that first seem to be irreconcilable opposites, then discovering all the ways in which they work together.
  5. Whenever you think you have found the complete and final answer, lie down in a darkened room until you come to your senses. Every answer is provisional — every one. What you have found may be the best you can do at present, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find a better one sometime; or that others haven’t found a better way already.
  6. Ambiguity and uncertainty are your friends. They encourage you to go on searching. They try to save you from betting everything on what you know today. People treat them as enemies because they undermine our pompous and self-righteous belief in “certainties.” Yet, the greatest risk anyone can take is to imagine that they already know what’s most important.

Only by slowing down and taking time to question and think — really think — shall we return to dealing with business reality, in place of those simplistic, misleading, cardboard-cutout, Hollywood melodramas we are becoming used to putting in its place.

Photo credit: Nils Tubbesing

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