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Five ways to avoid the pitfalls of binary decisions

Understanding ways to avoid the pitfalls of binary decisions is a skill that everyone can develop.


Written by: Eric J. McNulty (Are you the author?)
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Deciding is easy: true or false? The first challenge in answering this question is that it’s impossible to know the answer without more information. Which decisions, with what stakes, and on what timeline—these are just a few of the contextual factors most of us would want to consider before answering. The second challenge is that it’s probably not a true-or-false proposition.

Yet asked to choose, we do. This tendency is an example of what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI: what you see is all there is. We tend to respond to what’s presented to us. It takes extra effort to stop and ask, “What’s missing?” Our energy-conscious brains like to be efficient. The problem is that not having all of the information we need can lead us to make a poor decision.

Mazahrin Banaji of Harvard University and her colleagues have researched implicit bias by exploiting this quick-response tendency. One of their well-known findings is that people more quickly associate positive words with white faces and negative words with nonwhite faces. But a lesser-known finding is that test-takers never pause to ask for more detail. I have found similar results when using my own associative test in leadership seminars. Asked whether someone will be a great or not-so-great leader based only on a photograph, participants render judgment and can articulate their reasons. Rarely does someone say, “I don’t know” or “I need to know more about this person.”

It’s critical for executives to overcome this cognitive tendency to quickly make insufficiently informed binary choices. A decision to buy or sell, keep a project in-house or outsource it, work in the office or work from home, to name a few examples, can make or break a business and a career. And an in-between or hybrid option might be best. For instance, designating someone a leader versus a manager artificially limits the person’s potential because executive roles require both skill sets. And the sharing economy was built by injecting alternatives into binary decisions, such as whether to own an automobile. Moving beyond binary choices creates a nuanced perspective on potential risks and opportunities.

n fact, one lesson I’ve learned by teaching negotiation, conflict resolution, and leadership at Harvard is the power of options. I’ve seen that the most consistently effective negotiators are those who can frame a challenge as nonbinary and generate options for how to proceed. These successful negotiators deeply consider the problem and the interests of stakeholders, and in the process, discover or create multiple paths forward.

Here are five ways to overcome binary blind spots and increase your chances of making better decisions.

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