Do you have a tendency to make sweeping generalisations or blow things out of proportion? Do you take a comment or piece of feedback and extend its meaning way beyond what is actually relevant or true? Do you find yourself talking in absolute terms – “you always…”, “they never…”, or “everyone thinks…”?
If any of these scenarios ring true, you might be guilty of what I call “all or nothing” thinking. It’s a ubiquitous human character trait. We’re programmed to think this way. In a busy and complex world, our brains try to think more efficiently and make sense of what’s going on by grouping things together – by generalising. Rather than evaluating every situation, comment or event on its individual merits, it is easier and makes more sense to us to make general assumptions. Not only that, but our brains also like to be right! In order for us to function properly, our brains need to think that we’re doing the right the thing and are on the right track. We are therefore hardwired to actively seek out evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true. For example – perhaps if you believe that all partners in your law firm are middle-aged white men, you’ll conveniently exclude from your thinking the one partner of Afro-Caribbean origin and the two female partners whose offices you walk past every day.
But what’s so wrong with this type of thinking? If there are indeed only three non white male partners in your law firm – perhaps it’s right to generalise that it’s not a diverse senior working environment?
Well – the problem is – although it may be generally right – it is also not helpful.
In a tough world or challenging workplace, all or nothing thinking like this leaves you stuck. It makes you feel powerless, and it limits your flexibility, your adaptability and creativity. If you take the generalisation about a lack of diversity at a senior level in your company – how does thinking in these absolute terms help you progress? If you are a woman ambitious to succeed at the highest level, how does assuming the whole system is biased against you help you move forward?
The simple answer is – it doesn’t.
In order to survive and thrive in tough environments, you need to think differently. Generalisations, absolutes and extremes are obstacles. You need to start evaluating situations on their own true merits, and stop giving things more weight and relevance than they deserve. As a result, you will become more effective at resolving specific issues or problems rather than feeling overwhelmed or defeated by systemic ones. You will be able to adapt and to progress. Rather than generalising that all partners in your firm are middle-aged white males and so there’s no point in you trying for promotion, then, why not focus on the three that aren’t? Think about their specific circumstances and how they have achieved their success? What can you learn from that? How can you proceed?
All or nothing thinking really has no up-sides. It gives you a fixed mindset and makes growth impossible. If you start to change your all or nothing assumptions to a more nuanced way of thinking, you will most certainly reap the benefits. Tune into this week’s podcast #34 “All or Nothing Thinking” to find out what steps you can take to make this change.