Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Leaders: How to Change How You Think

...not what you believe.

We are going to show you two techniques for changing HOW you think about issues.

How You Think:

Binary thinking dominates as a conversation mode. Binary thinking is the tendency to view the world as either/or. The basic language of software programming is binary (0/1).

Binary thinking is increasing—one of the negative consequences of social media. Prior to social media, people lived in physical communities where they learned to respect people with different opinions. In its place we find a virtual community where people have common views. And those who do not share those common views are “bad.”

Business leaders often portray their company as “good guys” competing against “bad guys.”

Other examples:

A boss tells a subordinate, “You are either on the bus (with me) or off the bus (out of the company).

An insurance manager complains she is trying to increase shareholder value while those nasty people in underwriting are trying to avoid taking any risk.

An insurance manager in underwriting complains that he is trying to increase shareholder value while those nasty people in sales are trying to close unprofitable deals to achieve short-term bonuses.

Binary Thinking Has Value.

Sport events are exciting. And one reason is their binary nature: There will be one winner. Politicians generate voter enthusiasm by positioning themselves as “patriots” seeking to protect the country from their “unpatriotic” opponents.

When binary thinking becomes the organizing principle around business, it can create problems. For example, below is a real situation where binary logic simply will not be effective. Below is a real world example:

There are two organizations involved in this situation: Big City Physician Practice Group, and Main Street Physician Practice, Inc.

H. has a relationship with both institutions: she is a partner at Main Street and is also the President/CEO of Big City Practice Group.

Big City Practice Group needs additional revenue, and that means adding more physician practices. One potential candidate is Marsh Street Physician Practice Group, just down the road from Main Street Physician Practice Group. How does H. balance this issue?

Use Ordinal Thinking.

Binary logic will not help in this situation or any situation involving dilemmas and trade-offs. An alternative to viewing problems from a binary perspective is to examine situations as ordinal. An ordinal framework examines the situation on a scale from 0 (worst idea I have ever heard of) to 10 (best idea I have ever heard of).

Imagine the pain chart in your physician’s office as a good example of an ordinal scale.

Examining pain management from a binary perspective only requires the patient be asked this one question, “Are you in pain?”

Depending on how the patient responds, the physician risks overmedication or undermedication.

The same pain issue can be rephrased as an ordinal question: “On a scale of 0 (none) to 10 (worst pain in my life), what is the number that best reflects your pain right now?”

Which question do you want your doctor to ask you?

Weather forecasters seldom use binary logic: “It will snow today.” They say, “There is a 40% probability of snow that will accumulate between 2 and 4 inches.” This is ordinal logic.

H. might frame the issues from an ordinal perspective:

"If Big City Practice Group allows for the admission of competitor Marsh Street, let’s pick a number that best reflects the impact on our net income two years from today. Make sure we factor that their added membership dues help keep our membership dues from rising and the added leverage we will have in negotiating contracts with insurance companies because our membership has expended: 0 (no impact) to 10 (we go bankrupt)."

Wearing My Hat.

Another technique to avoid binary thinking is called “Wearing My Hat.”

If you move out of a binary system of logic, it is perfectly appropriate to state, “When I wear physician practice partner hat, I would have to say, ‘X.’ When I wear group CEO hat, I would say ‘Y.’ If I try to reach a balance that serves the best long-term interests of both organizations I would have to say ‘Z.’”

Changing the General Counsel’s Hat at a Hedge Fund.

We used the same Wearing My Hat technique in coaching the general counsel of a hedge fund.

She was approaching problems presented as the fund’s chief legal officer and was using binary thinking to classify things as “legal” versus “illegal.”

Such binary thinking alienated the general counsel from other senior executives at the fund. The legal department was called "the place where good ideas go to die.”

Our coaching work with the general counsel was not to question her competence as an attorney. But we did question the binary logic she used to classify subjects as “legal" versus "illegal.”

Using the Wearing My Hat framework, we had her argue the case first as a member of the senior management team and then wearing her general counsel hat.

Through the Wearing My Hat technique, she began to soften her binary thinking and begin to talk about reshaping a proposal so that it could exist in the gray zone.

We asked of her that instead of taking a binary framework to problems, she frame her opinion from a 0 (no problem with regulatory requirements) to 10 (clear violation of regulatory requirements).

If an issue was evaluated by her as 8 or less, she would not say “No.” She would say, “How can we work together to reduce the issue to a 3 or less?”


We are seeing an upsurge in binary thinking. Listen to the news media and discussions on social media for examples of binary thinking.

The problem with viewing issues from this perspective is that it oversimplifies complex situations. Ordinal logic may provide a better framework. Consider also using Wearing My Hat as a technique to get out of binary box.

More from Larry Stybel
More from Psychology Today