Dichotomies: Dangerous Twins of the Workplace

An organization that I have worked with for several years met with me recently to discuss how their organization was performing.  The leadership team summarized their situation this way:

We are a strong organization, but we have been struggling lately on reaching our full performance potential.  We know the economy is playing a role, but we have been careful to keep our team together.  We are doing what we did before from an operational standpoint, but now we are ending up with different results.  Our methods of accountability worked in the past and now most employees feel there are inadequate levels of responsibility and accountability across the organization.

Toward the end of the discussion, I asked what the leadership team thought about how to improve the situation.  One group of managers argued that employees should be told to “just get it together and push forward” since they are lucky to still have a job when many in the marketplace do not.  The second group felt that would send the “wrong message” and ensure an exodus of the better qualified employees as the economy continues to improve.  Consequently, the second group advocated being empathic and providing greater flexibility as a reward for past commitment and an incentive for improving current efforts.

As the discussion occurred, I began to wonder why our natural inclination is to use dichotomies when dealing with workplace challenges.   The client’s leadership team centered their discussion on two alternatives during each phase: performing and not performing, accountable and not accountable, and controlling and flexible.  Much of human life is bisected to create two sides or dualities: light and darkness, work and play, inside and outside, not married and married, optimist and pessimist, sane and insane, good and evil, or smart and dumb.  The either-or or contrasting approach to categorizing the physical world starts a very young age.  We teach children to differentiate and we start very simply with colors, vehicles, dolls, animals, and family members.

This ability to compare becomes the basis for how we categorize our world.  However, the method is not infallible as an analytical tool.  There are three major weaknesses that we should keep in mind related to dichotomous thinking when dealing with complex issues:

  • Hasty Categorization
  • Easy Opposites
  • Properties Change

Hasty Categorization

Things are not always what we think they are.  We want simple and fixed categories for things since it helps us quickly organize our lives and facilitates simple decision-making.  Yet, in some cases, several characteristics may not be sufficient to clearly define what we hope to address.   A friend recently relayed a story to me that will illuminate this weakness.  His middle daughter is a toddler and starting to learn to differentiate animals.  She loves cats and she looks for them when they are driving, visiting friends, or just walking in the neighborhood.  In the beginning, when she saw a small dog, she would giggle, smile, and point at the small dog and yell “cat” several times.  My friend and his wife would tell her it is a dog and she would shake her head and say “cat” again.  The hair, four legs, tail, and body of the small dog was similar enough to a cat that it was categorized as such in her mind.

Easy Opposites

Although opposites work well for the comparisons that we make as a child, the factors we deal with in adult life and especially the workplace may be thought of as being dichotomous are often competing, yet not mutually exclusive.  Meaning, there are differences, but the differences do not rule the presence of some similarities. A common phrase most of us use to account for this phenomenon is the “gray area.”  The gray area is the blend of options or characteristics that most of us adopt.  Although we might talk in opposites or even extremes, we find that most of the solutions we employ are a combination that includes some of what we want as well as a portion of what we do not. The very idea of compromise provides for getting some of what you want, but not all.

Properties Change

Dichotomous thinking coincides with assigning properties or characteristics to each category that we assume will not change.  I encounter regularly the argument that “just because something worked for another organization, it does not mean it will work for mine.”  The role of uniqueness in prescribing and implementing improvement and change is very important factor to consider.  Empirical evidence and experience has proven that one organization’s recipe for success in the form of a best practice will not necessarily produce the same result in another organization or even in the same organization again.  However, that is not to say, that nothing will work in another organization because it was successful elsewhere.  Similarly, the applicability of each option in a specific environment may be very different.  For example, we may talk about management styles as being dichotomous: controlling and empowering. However, most recognize that either extreme would most likely prove disastrous in any industry.  Different locations on the spectrum of controlling to empowering will have a different success rates in different environments, such as cultures, industries, and organizational types.

Over the next several posts, I want to explore how this impacts organizations.

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