There is no shortage of leadership challenges that we will face during our careers. Our mindset plays a big part in how we overcome obstacles, and “all or nothing thinking” can prevent us from seeing potential solutions to leadership problems.
All or nothing thinking occurs when we see our options in black and white, with no shades of grey.
We either succeed, or we fail. We win or we lose. They get the prize, and we don’t. We never win, rather than we sometimes do. We always mess up, rather than we occasionally struggle.
Why Does All or Nothing Thinking Occur?
I come across all or nothing thinking quite often when working with leaders.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, because even though we all know that uncertainty and “grey areas” are a natural part of life, we can still think in a very black and white way.
In my experience, we can slip into all or nothing thinking for a few reasons.
First, all or nothing thinking limits our choices. If there are only two options for every situation, we can avoid being overwhelmed by choice.
It takes away our feelings of responsibility. When we see only “yes” or “no”, it makes us feel powerless to control our own destiny. This can help us feel like it’s not our fault… and the universe is doing things to us.
This lets us sit back and accept what’s given to us, rather than creating another option that might be better.
Our past experience can shape our thinking. In the past, if you were never or always allowed to do something, this may be the thought pattern you bring into your future, even if it isn’t appropriate any more.
Learn More: Build A Better Leadership Mindset In 6 Simple Ways.
Examples of All or Nothing Thinking
There are lots of good examples of all or nothing thinking in our workplaces if you look and listen hard enough. Here are some that I commonly see appearing:
- “He always messes up” or “She’ll never be able to do this”. Sometimes we tend to label team members as failures or successes, rather than acknowledging that in reality, there are times where they are probably both.
- “I want to work part-time but they’d never let me”. Ever been faced with a situation where people want flexibility or reduced hours, but the workplace is unable to provide it? Compromise could be possible, but sometimes people don’t see the potential options.
- “I don’t have time”. Feeling like we have no available time can be an example of all or nothing thinking. In reality, we might be able to accommodate new activities that are important.
- “Now or never”. Do we really need to do something right now? Or can it wait? Could we do something in stages, rather than all at once? The possibilities are endless.
- “They’d never try this idea”. People often stop themselves from acting because they make assumptions about other people. You never know if you don’t try. And even if they don’t like your *exact* idea, making a few tweaks might be possible.
- “I can’t do this and that”. We often trade off different ideas or activities, needing to do only one or the other. But could it be that we could make some adjustments to be able to do both?
You can probably think of some examples from your own experience, whether all or nothing thinking is coming from the people in your workplace, or even your own thought processes.
How to Stop All or Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thinking can be damaging to our leadership, and our careers. It can stop us from taking opportunities, taking action or seeing the possibilities.
Here are some ways that we can try to put a stop to all or nothing thinking, once and for all.
1. Notice Your Thought Patterns
The first step is to notice when you’re falling into all or nothing thought patterns. This might be your brain trying to let you off the hook and help you feel like things “aren’t your fault”.
Some words to look for include never, always, completely, nothing, everything.
If you spot yourself thinking or saying these words, take a pause, and go to #2.
2. Reframe the Situation in Reality
“He always does this”. Is it true? Or is it really just sometimes?
“They’ll never agree to this”. How do you know? Have you asked? Maybe you could adjust what it is you’re asking for.
Taking time to step back and reframe your situation can be a useful step. However, it’s not easy.
If you’re under stress and pressure, it can be easy to blow things out of proportion, thinking of the worst possible outcome.
3. Speak to Someone Else
When we rely only on our own thought patterns, we can get stuck. After all, we hear our thoughts every day. We become used to hearing them, and we start to believe them.
Speak to someone else who you trust. Get their opinion, or have them coach you about your challenge. It’s amazing what a different perspective can do.
Especially, a perspective from somebody who is independent or somewhat detached from your direct situation.
4. Find the Positives
We’ll fail from time to time, and our people won’t always do what you need them to. But when we’re surrounded by change, uncertainty and negativity it can be easy to slip into negative thought patterns.
A former boss of mine called it the “echo chamber” effect, where you say negative things, other people hear them and agree, reflecting them back at you.
Before you know it, everything and everyone seems bad, because it’s all you hear.
What are people doing well? If something didn’t go quite right, what was the lesson you can take from it?
If you’re not feeling great, what is it that’s causing you stress, and can you make an adjustment?
What did you enjoy today? What are you grateful for? Gratitude has been shown to have a positive effect on your mental health.
Enjoy more gratitude and it wouldn’t be a surprise to observe less all or nothing thinking.
None of these ideas will work overnight. If you’ve been engaging in all or nothing thinking for a long time, your brain has become well accustomed to it.
We need to start unpicking this and engaging in a new type of thinking.
Let’s call it spectrum thinking. Instead of there being a Yes or No, or a Right or Wrong, or a Never or Always, there’s a spectrum of possibilities out there in between.
Each day practice noticing your thoughts and reframing them. You might catch yourself falling into the same all or nothing patterns, and this is OK. Simply redirect yourself back to spectrum thinking.
Meditation and mindfulness exercises can help with this, because they make you more aware of your thoughts over time. I highly recommend these practices if all or nothing thinking is something you find yourself struggling with.
I like Zen Habits for meditation and mindfulness information, but also remember that Google is your friend, as there are many other great options if you search a little.
All or Nothing Thinking Can Feel Easy, But It Can Hold You Back
It can feel easy to believe there are only two options, and that there is nothing you can do to change your situation. The reality is often very different.
There is a spectrum of possibilities out there, if you start to look for them. It may be a compromise or adjustment that can make the difference to you and your people getting what you need.
When we think in terms of all or nothing, we may stop ourselves from acting, believing there are no good options. We may stop trying, because we believe it’s all pointless.
How is all or nothing thinking influencing your leadership?
Have you caught yourself falling into all or nothing thinking patterns? What was the situation and what happened? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know about your experiences!