Quick Links

How Binary Thinking Can Turn into Critical Thinking

Technology has brought ones and zeros into the workplace. This computer-generated number system brings some added benefits, such as more efficiency and accuracy for the work. You are better able to connect instantaneously with others from all walks of life and more effectively manage large amounts of information. This connectivity also gives you the ability to see and learn more than at any time in history.

This binary system also seems to have made its way into our thinking and perhaps had more of an effect on our personal approaches than we realize. The trend is to think in a two-option viewpoint. Binary thinking has its benefits. It is tied to fight or flight behaviors and protecting us from harm. As Steve Pinker suggested in his book, How the Mind Works, when you are in danger, you have an automatic reaction that says avoid the stimulus or fight to protect yourself. Binary thinking for individuals comes with the challenge of moving past this reptilian reaction to a more critically assessed response. There is a growing contest to make sense of the vast amounts of information that is available because of our technological advances.

We see the challenges of binary thinking with social media and politics, also. Heated discussions occur when someone has to be right. Binary thinking in the workplace may surface in situations where one individual becomes unwilling to look beyond the right or wrong of a complication and assess alternate outcomes. This turns individuals toward reactionary behavior that limits the ability to see a broader perspective. With binary thinking, people and situations are good or bad, or wrong or right. People are either for or against you. Conditions are either acceptable or unacceptable.

This thinking limits options and reduces the ability to see a more comprehensive view of how people and situations can work together successfully. Binary thinking also makes it more difficult to process and share information, which in the current technological advancement of knowledge becomes an even more critical skillset for employees to use.

Consider the impacts of binary thinking on your projects. With binary thinking, you see more conflict, have less ability to discern information when making decisions, and have trouble working collectively. Individuals take on the mentality of all or nothing, good or bad, right or wrong. There is no room for discussion or a process to find solutions for difficult situations. You also see less tolerance for diversity, reduced creativity, and increased defensiveness toward differing approaches to work situations.

What if, instead of following a track of binary thinking, we embraced more critical thinking skills in the workplace? Critical thinking skills help you make more informed and responsive decisions. Critical thinking also helps you with the ability to disseminate accurate information from misinformation. George N. Root III, a Houston Chronicle contributor, discussed in a recent article that the role of critical thinking was a way to more effectively assess situations. You find more innovation and authenticity with critical thinking.

One practice that helps improve critical thinking skills and reduce the chances of binary thinking is to think of people and situations as different, not good or bad or wrong or right. When you define people as good or bad, you set yourself up for a binary thought process that says that this person or situation is either good where we agree with them or bad where they do not.

An example of this type of thinking would be on social media where one individual makes a comment and then has reactions to the feedback they receive. Critical thinking offers you a grey area in between the judgment. Critical thinking skills lead you to ask questions about the person or the situation who commented from the perspective of differences. How does one person see the world differently from your way of thinking? What are some of the commonalities between that persons’ and your thoughts? What are some bits of information we can all agree upon? Critical thinking skills keep a discussion forward into the future.

Binary thinking works well in a digital computer environment where there are no value judgements.  In human situations, binary thinking becomes a value judgment unlike the ones and zeros of computers. If an individual does not agree with you, then you might perceive that your value as a person has diminished. This value judgment thinking kicks in the reactive need to protect yourself from danger with fight or flight. Instead, remind yourself that a different opinion does not somehow reduce the value of your initial thought or belief. You can have a firm grip on your belief AND have an open discussion about differing views.

In the workplace, you may see one person who has completed work in a team of individuals that do not match the work of others. A binary view might be to say he or she is wrong and tell them to do it over because they are not doing the job correctly. A more critical thinking centered response would be to ask that person about how they came up with their end result and see if there is any value in the thought process. That person is not good or bad, or wrong or right. They have a different thought process that may or may not work for that particular team. The only way to find out is to seek to understand their process without judgment.

In his recent Harvard Business Review article, John Baldoni recognized that in our world of growing uncertainty, there is excellent value in having critical thinkers who can assess a situation, identify the potential where others may not, and create opportunities with swift decision-making. As project managers, we can make a difference in this area not only for the sake of our companies and projects, but for our own personal growth. Critical thinking skills helps you move events and people forward in a way that brings cohesion and constancy to the way you work.


Avatar photo
Written by Dr. Lynette Reed

Writer, researcher and advisor on human potential for personal and organizational development, Dr. Lynette Reed has mentored people from in businesses, not-for-profits, schools, allied health agencies, chambers of commerce, government and churches. She has taught courses on team building, leadership, ethics, world religion and world cultures. Her current literary contributions include an executive summary paperback titled, Fixing the Problem: Making Changes in How You Deal with Challenges, as well as book contributions, articles, guest radio appearances and a series of children’s books with Abingdon Press. She is also a co-founder and board member of the Institute for Soul-Centered Leadership at Seton Cove. Lynette holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality, Sustainability, and Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Master of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Contact her at expectations2reality@icloud.com.

Share This Post

Leave a Reply