Here’s why either/or thinking gets in the way of good leadership

By Heather Campbell

I love a snappy title so naturally I was drawn to ‘On the Practice of Dichotomization of Quantitative Variables’1 😊. Okay, so the headline might not be an attention-grabber but the research findings in the associated article are absolutely relevant to you as a leader.

Here’s why.

The essence of this paper is that splitting data into dichotomies (either/or, for example) rather than looking at the complex spread of data means you lose the real meaning the data contains.

Here’s an example from the leadership world.

A Managing Director I was coaching believed that instilling fear in organisations was a good thing because, if people weren’t afraid, they’d get sloppy. Productivity would go down.

This is an example of the practice of dichotomy thinking and, ironically, this particular belief did far more harm than any amount of sloppiness could ever have done.

It impacted the Managing Director’s behaviour and, as a consequence, the behaviour of the people who reported to him. The either/or mindset reduced his opportunity to explore, to learn, to understand. It meant he created processes and systems that took away autonomy and wasted time. It resulted in a ‘cover your back’ mentality and a blame culture. It led to high staff turnover, and to low morale amongst those who stayed. It took away scope to discuss and debate and explore.

Even as you read this, you may find yourself thinking ‘I’m not like him.’ Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you don’t hold this specific belief. I’d argue, however, that you certainly hold ‘either/or’ dichotomous thinking about some people or some things, and that this thinking is driving less than effective behaviours and actions.

We all do it. Moving things into dichotomies is one way the human brain makes sense of complexity. But it also ignores the many subtle nuances that inform our understanding and lead to more effective behaviour, more effective decision-making and more effective interaction.

And just because it’s challenging to change doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least notice how often we do it and ask ourselves if it’s empowering us or limiting us (oops, did you spot that example?).

In reality, the most accurate answer most of the time is ‘it depends’.

Back to the snappily-titled article, if splitting quantitative data into two categories means it loses its real richness, just think how much more this is the case when we do it with the qualitative data on which we base so many of our leadership decisions.

Ultimately, whatever your particular dichotomous thinking might be, if you aren’t aware of it or don’t question it, you put many things at risk.

As soon as something becomes ‘either’ ‘or’, we lose the many shades of grey which sit between. In fact, we lose far more, because the shades of grey are actually the rich colours that open up possibilities and learning and growth.

That’s exactly what the Managing Director discovered as he gradually (and somewhat painfully) loosened his grip on either ‘afraid’ or ‘sloppy’ and found the many positions that people could hold between these two absolutes.

If you get a chance, let me know the dichotomies you identify that trip you up more often than they help. I’d love to hear from you.

As always, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.


1 MacCallum, Zhang, Preacher, and Rucker, 2002 study published in Psychological Methods Psychological (2002), American Psychological Association, Inc. 2002, Vol. 7, No. 1, 19–40

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