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Why All-or-Nothing Thinking Can Get You in Trouble at Work

And when you absolutely have to think in black and white

Woman working in a conference room

Image courtesy of Christina Wocintechchat

If you’re an all-or-nothing thinker, join the club. Humans are biased toward binary thinking, where everything is black and white; it’s comforting, especially in a complex world where shades of grey are often the only real choices.

“The largest and most powerful part of your brain loves the idea that this is how the world works,” explains entrepreneurial business strategist Daniel Priestley. “It craves the clarity of a world that unfolds in a straight line. It’s happy if there’s a plan and it takes comfort that if we stick to it, everything will be ok.”

Read more: What I Do When I Feel Like a Failure at Work

What is all-or-nothing thinking?

The American Psychological Association (APA) calls all-or-nothing thinking dichotomous thinking or polarized thinking. Anyone who tends to “think in terms of polar opposites—that is, in terms of the best and worst—without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes,” is exhibiting all-or-nothing thinking.

It’s actually a cognitive distortion. 

Psychologist John Grohol, founder and CEO of the mental health network PsychCentral, explains that “cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.” An example of this all-or-nothing thinking is: I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.

Read more: I Am a Failure

This kind of black-and-white mindset is connected to negative perfectionism. If you think you always fail when you try something new, then the perfectionist in you won’t let you take on new projects. You are at risk too of self-fulfilling prophecies: When you believe something, your behavior and subconscious align to make it true for you. “You may unconsciously work to affirm your belief by ignoring the positive, amplifying the negative, and behaving in ways that are unlikely to contribute to [a positive outcome],” explains research consultant Courtney E. Ackerman.

How can all-or-nothing thinking affect my career?

Psychology instructor and career coach Rebecca Fraser-Thill tells InHerSight that all-or-nothing thinking can go two ways:

  • It can cause us to experience moods and take actions that aren't in line with what the situation warrants.

  • At its worst, it’s involved in anxiety disorders and depression, but even less severe levels of the thinking pattern can impact us and those around us.

She gives this work-related example: If a direct report stops by your office to tell you about a mistake they made, your all-or-nothing thinking might cause you to either blow the mistake off (that's no problem at all) or to take the mistake extremely seriously (maybe we should consider termination). 

Of course, the reasonable approach is to first examine the nature of the mistake, including its effects, why it was made, and how the employee plans to remedy the situation in the future, Fraser-Thill explains. “Typically the mistake falls somewhere between no harm at all and grounds for termination, and a manager needs to systematically examine the reality of the situation before reacting emotionally or behaviorally.”

Read more: The Qualities That Make a Good Leader…and Those That Don’t

Can I use polarized thinking to my advantage?

There are times when all-or-nothing thinking is useful. 

David Stein at Medium puts it this way: “If I am crossing the street and I ask my friend if cars are coming, and he sees two busses, a van, and a truck, I do not want him to say ‘no’ on a technicality.”

It can also be helpful in terms of acceptable behavior, especially in the workplace. For example, all forms of sexual harassment and bullying are unacceptable. Any touching other than handshakes is unacceptable as is regaling coworkers with sexual jokes. Even remaining silent and not reporting incidents of harassment can be filed under “wrong” in right-or-wrong thinking.

Read more: 9 Mantras of Successful Working Women We Can All Live By

How can I change all-or-nothing thinking?

If polarized thinking is having a negative impact on your life and career, the first step to getting out of the pattern is to lose the negative labels.

Instead of simply saying “I made a mistake,” psychiatrist Dr. Anil tweets, all-or-nothing thinkers attach a negative label to themselves, like loser, fool, or failure. “Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do…[they are] useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem,” he explains.

Doing something as simple as taking a break from the situation in which you’re mired in negative thoughts (I can’t do this), and filling that break time with an activity that requires concentration can help. When your brain is busy, it can’t think other thoughts.

Try to remove unconditional words from your vocabulary too. These include “never,” “every,” and “nothing.” The all-or-nothing statement, I never get that right, can then become, I sometimes get that right, or even, I can get that right.

Also, redefine what failure really means. It’s important to remember that successful people fail, and what’s more they learn from it, writes management consultant and strategist Terina Allen

In fact, “successful people don’t define failure as the opposite of success; they define failure as the opposite of trying,” she explains. “They recognize that the truest form of failure is what happens when you allow your fear of not achieving something to stop you from trying something new in the first place. When you allow the idea or fear of failure to cause you to resist change in an attempt to avoid all risk, you indeed become a failure—and the truly unacceptable kind at that.”

Read more: 36 Quotes About Failure That Will Lift You Up

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By Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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