How Binary Thinking Undermines Organizational Agility

By Ron Carucci

Wednesday, September 27th 2017

In the face of unforeseen hard choices, leaders commonly resort to binary choice making, limiting the options available to them to address complex challenges. This is because, as major research on decision making shows, our brains are naturally wired to be more impulsive under stress.  Spotting false patterns, we reach for premature conclusions rather than opening ourselves to more and better options.  Binary thinking actually undermines our agility and as organizations.

One senior sales executive I worked with recently illustrated this in a moment of frustration.  She’d been working on delegating more to her team, who had asked for more empowerment.  To her dismay, many were struggling to take on the levels of freedom she’d offered.  Exasperated, she vented to me, “I thought delegating was supposed to free me up to do more of my own job.  But every time they drop a ball I hand off, it takes me twice as long to clean up the mess as it would have taken for me to just do it myself.” Her complaint is not uncommon, because – like many leaders – she saw her only options as “delegate” or “control.”  Now exhausted from failing at one extreme, her natural impulse was to revert back to the other. What she needed to ask herself was, “What parts of this task are my people ready and confident to take on, and what role must I play for this to get done?”

To avoid the whiplashing effect of bounding between polarities, leaders must learn to increase their agility across an array of leadership challenges and increased pressures – because that gives them a more effective set of options from which to choose. 

Here are four common sets of extremes that leaders tend to default to when facing tough challenges.

1. Communicating tough news.  One of a leader’s most stressful demands is delivering messages that disappoint people.  The two extremes leaders tend to bounce between here are being overly blunt and excessively politically correct.  I’ve watched leaders waste precious minutes in a long wind-up of couching and softening-the-blow as their teams braced for impact from an impending message of doom.  I’ve also seen leaders convince themselves that “just ripping the band aid off” is the best way to deliver bad news.  Neither option ever works. Worse, they only take into account the leader’s discomfort delivering the news, failing to consider those receiving it.  Leaders must learn to blend their degree of directness and their degree of diplomacy based on the impact of what they are saying on those hearing it.  Leaders who don’t have sufficient range of motion to appropriately deliver tough news have even less capacity when they need it most – dealing with the inevitable aftermath of what they’ve said.  The key is preparation.  If leaders spend time carefully crafting messages that blend the right degree of diplomacy and directness, tailored to those hearing it, they will be far better prepared to deal with what comes afterwards.   

2. Facing high-risk decisions.  When faced with higher degrees of risk associated with a decision, leaders can revert to one of two extremes.  The “trust your gut” leader makes highly intuitive decisions, and the “analyze everything” leader wants lots of data to back up his choice.  For routine decisions with relatively predictable outcomes, a leader’s strong preference for one of these poses minimal threat to the decision’s quality.  But when the decision has far reaching implications, such as long-range financial performance, a leader’s angst can provoke them to their extreme preference with greater consequences.  The highly intuitive leader becomes impulsive, missing critical facts.  The highly analytical leader gets paralyzed in data, often failing to make any decision. The right blend of data and intuition applied to carefully constructing a choice leaves builds the organization’s agility for executing the decision once made. And it avoids wasting resources cleaning up after a decision goes bad or an opportunity is missed.

3. Introducing radical ideas.  When faced with chronic challenges for which traditional problem solving approaches haven’t worked, leaders must bring radical ideas to the table that haven’t been considered.  The notion of departing from conventional approaches can stress leaders, driving them to one of two comfort zones.  On one end of the spectrum, a leader can hold a level of unyielding certainty about the efficacy of their idea and its likelihood to solve the problem.  On the other end, leaders offer ideas very tentatively so as not to come across as overly domineering.  The problem is that whatever the chronic issue is has already exhausted and discouraged the organization.  If people feel the leader is being dogmatic about their views, leaving no room for anyone else’s, they will likely disengage, regardless of the merits of the idea.  Or if people feel the leader lacks confidence in their idea, they will struggle to muster conviction to try it, concluding, “Well, if she isn’t all that convinced it will work, I’m not going to stick my neck out.”  The right blend of conviction and openness sets the stage for others to participate in surfacing an untested solution that builds on the leader’s best thinking, but refines it with the inputs of others.  This collectively energizes a leader and her team, giving the organization the agility it needs to put the idea into action. 

4. Delegating higher levels of authority. Many leaders struggle to let go of decision rights to those they fear aren’t ready.  As was the case with the sales executive above, taking risks on untested followers can feel overwhelming.  But in demanding situations, leaders are often forced to give people chances to step up to new challenges.  Leaders obsess over letting go of their own authority because a follower’s failure will make them look bad.  Worse, they fear a follower’s success will make them irrelevant.  So they cling to their authority with exhausting levels of control.  By contrast, some leaders throw caution to the winds. With unfettered optimism, they declare, “I trust you,” and let direct-reports go off with limited perspective and experience.  In challenging circumstances, that is not delegation: its abandonment.  The balance of authority one retains and relinquishes is an artful blend that matches the person’s skill and readiness with the situation at hand.  Done well, this begins with a clear contracting session between the leader and follower clarifying expectations, honestly assessing what the follower is ready to take on, and how the leader will remain involved.  Too often the stressful conditions causes leaders to skip such important preparation in a false sense of reflexive urgency.  The more urgent a situation is, the more carefully planned delegated authority must be. 

The more demanding circumstances are, the more a leader can benefit from a wide range of options to choose from. Reverting to extremes may create a false sense of comfort in the moment, but set up disaster in the end.  There are no complex challenges in the world for which there are only two options to solve.  Agility is required. The minute you find yourself torn between two extremes, assume that both are limited, step back, and build a broader menu of options.  That’s where you’re likely to find your optimal choice. 


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